- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2015

Vote tallying was still going on Monday night, but Myanmar’s pro-democracy opposition leaders were claiming an overwhelming victory in the nation’s historic elections — a development likely to expand opportunities for trade and diplomacy with the U.S., as concerns persist over the Southeast Asian nation’s human rights record.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) party of U.S.-backed activist Aung San Suu Kyi has won virtually every parliamentary seat in districts counted so far, signaling a potential sweep that U.S. officials hope will loosen the military’s half-century stranglehold on power.

Voices rang out in unison Monday at NLD headquarters in Yangon, as jubilant crowds gathered beneath massive TVs showing images of Ms. Suu Kyi.

“She’s the people’s leader who the whole world knows,” they sang. “Write your own history in your hearts for our future so the dictatorship will end. Go, go, go away dictatorship.”

The Obama administration has for years made Myanmar a centerpiece of its self-described “pivot to Asia.” In private, officials say they pushed for an NLD takeover in the hope that it will improve human rights and reverse China’s long-held dominance over Yangon.

If the NLD victory holds, it may be seen as a major success for Mr. Obama, who personally sought Ms. Suu Kyi’s release from two decades of house arrest in 2010 and subsequently eased U.S. sanctions to coax the rulers of Myanmar — long known as Burma — into holding the nation’s first relatively open election in 2012.

White House officials say they are optimistic that the latest election, held Sunday, was even more inclusive and transparent.

“Millions of people in Burma voted,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, calling the development “an important step in Burma’s democratic reform process.”

But the administration has drawn heat from critics who say that despite some clear success, Mr. Obama may have missed an opportunity by not pushing harder for reforms. At issue specifically is that 25 percent of the parliament’s seats still will go to unelected members of the military, whose top commander still has the power to nominate heads of the nation’s interior, defense and border ministries.

More pressing is that Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution technically bars Ms. Suu Kyi from the presidency because she was married to, and has children with, a foreign citizen — the late British historian Michael Vaillancourt Aris.

Ms. Suu Kyi calls the rule irrelevant. She said in recent days that she will effectively be “above” whoever is named president if the NLD wins.

Such a scenario seemed likely Monday as President Thein Sein’s nationalist Union Solidarity and Development Party appeared to concede defeat. “We lost,” Htay Oo, acting party chairman, told Reuters news agency.

With the nation’s election commission announcing the results, the news agency reported, NLD had won 49 of the first 54 seats declared for the parliament’s lower house, where 330 seats were contested.

That she will still be barred from the presidency is a source of frustration at the White House. Mr. Earnest told reporters that it’s “an indication that additional reforms are needed and additional work needs to be done to bring about the kind of effective democracy — representative democracy — we’d like to see.”

But human rights concerns persist, especially regarding Myanmar’s more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims, who have been oppressed in the majority-Buddhist nation for decades.

An election background analysis published by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington noted that the government, following an outcry from Buddhist nationalists, “revoked temporary voting rights” allotted to the Rohingya.

The analysis also pointed to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report that said reforms in Myanmar had “experienced significant slowdowns and in some cases reversals of basic freedoms.”

The situation seems unlikely to improve quickly under a Suu Kyi-led government, as she was quoted by Reuters last week as saying the Rohingyas’ plight should not be exaggerated while “our whole country is in a dramatic situation.”

The Obama administration, meanwhile, warned that Washington is watching closely to see whether the election results get manipulated by any party.

“The United States will be carefully observing the post-election vote counting process and will urge all parties to ensure votes are tabulated in a transparent and credible manner and that any credible complaints are addressed promptly and appropriately,” Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a statement Sunday night.

Ms. Power raised concerns that “scores of candidates were disqualified in a non-transparent manner and that virtually all Rohingya have been disenfranchised.”

“These are fundamental issues of fairness and inclusivity,” she said.

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