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With hope for democracy, millions vote in Myanmar’s historic election

In Myanmar, the country's freest election ever this weekend will determine control of the nation's parliament, which is still dominated by the military. Aung San Suu Kyi leads the main opposition party and is seeking re-election. Suzanne DiMaggio of The New America Foundation joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Joining me to discuss the importance of today's election in Myanmar is Suzanne DiMaggio from the New America Foundation.

    So, how free and fair are these elections?

    SUZANNE DIMAGGIO, Director and Senior Fellow, New America Foundation: Well, everything is relative, especially when it comes to Myanmar.

    And it is a significant election. First and foremost, there are over 90 parties registered to give candidates. That is astounding, when you think of this country as being dominated by the military for half-a-century.

    Secondly, this is really the first time in 25 years that the major opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, has been allowed to campaign freely throughout the country.

    So, for many Myanmar people, this is the first time in their lives that they have been able to participate in a competitive election.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's not like the military is giving up complete control. They still have 25 percent of all the parliamentary seats. They are going to still control that.

  • SUZANNE DIMAGGIO:

    Yes. When the — when the generals of the junta decided they were going to begin a transition to democracy, they put together a constitution that ensures that they have the upper edge.

    They maintain 25 percent of all seats automatically in the Parliament, which gives them a clear advantage.

    So, what they did was fashion themselves golden parachutes out of the old system, changed their uniforms. They are now in civilian garb. But make no mistake about it, the military still holds the abundance of power.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    That means that a lot of these, you know, competitive races in all these small places, they're going to have to form coalitions in order to overcome the power that the military already has built in.

  • SUZANNE DIMAGGIO:

    Absolutely. Unless the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi has won by a significant landslide — and that could happen, because what I'm hearing is 30 million people were eligible to vote.

    There are reports that as many as 80 percent of those 30 million came to the polls. That would translate probably into support for the NLD.

    It could be a landslide. But, if it's not, you are exactly right. There's going to be a lot of alliance-building, coalition-building. This will have to include many of the smaller ethnic minority parties.

    So, the big question is, whoever emerges as the leader of Myanmar, do they have the skill set to be a unifier that is really needed to bring this country to its next step?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well, there's this other specter looming, which is, 25 years ago, they had an election. The military didn't like what they saw, chose to stay in power.

  • SUZANNE DIMAGGIO:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What happens tomorrow, next week, next month, when all the totals are in, and might not be something the military likes?

  • SUZANNE DIMAGGIO:

    Well, that's the biggest concern.

    Twenty-five years ago, the military didn't expect the NLD to win by a landslide. They were caught by surprise. This time, they cannot say that they will be caught by surprise. There have been preparations for this.

    Also, the current president, Thein Sein, and other military leaders are on record as saying, if the NLD wins, if the opposition wins, they will respect that.

    Also, Myanmar is a different country today. It is more connected to the rest of the world.

    The United States has normalized relations. If the military decides not to make good if the NLD wins, this would turn into a major international incident.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Suzanne DiMaggio of the New America Foundation, thanks so much.

  • SUZANNE DIMAGGIO:

    My pleasure.

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