YANGON – Myanmar has entered a critical phase in its fight against a powerful second wave of Covid-19 as de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her administration seeks to control the outbreak by intensifying lockdown measures ahead of November 8 elections.
The Southeast country has reported 9,991 cases and 198 deaths as of September 26, an exponential leap from the 1,133 cases recorded on September 4. A mid-August outbreak in the western state of Rakhine has since been followed by a surge in the commercial capital of Yangon and nationwide, an infectious trend that has shown no signs of slowing.
That’s having political and economic impacts that could sow instability and paralysis in the weeks ahead, particularly in the context of general elections due on November 8.
Su Mon Thant, a Myanmar electoral expert formerly with the Carter Center, expects the authorities to move ahead with the election schedule, with any postponement likely announced in the middle of October.
“It is unlikely that the Union Election Commission [UEC] will change their mind [to go ahead with the votes as planned] unless the virus situation gets completely out of hand,” she told Asia Times.
The military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party and 23 other opposition parties have asked the UEC to postpone the polls, citing the impact of health measures on campaign activities and voting.
The UEC responded that it does not plan to delay the voting despite the escalating outbreak. It indicated the number of polling stations would be scaled up to minimize crowds and that it will announce next month those constituencies where voting will be canceled.
UEC officials also said that any changes to the voting day will be decided next month, following the timeline in the 2015 historic elections.
Therefore the ultimate decision rests on how effective the lockdown measures are in reducing the number of cases over the coming weeks. A “stay-at-home” order mandating the closure of most workplaces and restricting travel is now in force across Yangon and its hinterland until October 7.
Suu Kyi in a live Facebook video last week urged her supporters to comply with the Covid-19 measures to ensure votes can be cast on November 8. The civilian leader told the public not to “worry too much” about the deadly virus, arguing that Myanmar would see results in one or two weeks if they comply with her government’s instructions.
A new parliament is scheduled to convene next February as stipulated by the constitution, which does not have a mechanism for putting off the elections. That means the polls at most could be kicked back to January, a move that wouldn’t likely resolve pandemic concerns if the current outbreak isn’t arrested.
“For the UEC, the risks posed by Covid-19 are dwarfed by the potential constitutional and political crises created by an election delay beyond a few weeks,” said Su Mon Thant, who is now with Yangon-based Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation.
The November elections for both houses of parliament and all 13 state and regional legislatures are the first major popularity test for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party since their landslide victory in Myanmar’s first open election in over half a century.
Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, is guaranteed by the constitution to take up 25% of seats in parliament and three government ministries.
The Nobel laureate remains hugely popular across large swathes of the Bamar heartland, although slightly diminished among the urban middle-class who are frustrated with the lack of economic progress.
This year is poles apart from the jovial and boisterous campaign season in 2015, when herds of supporters flocked to NLD rallies up and down the country. Public gatherings are currently restricted and Suu Kyi and rival party leaders have opted to campaign on Facebook.
Not everyone in Myanmar knows what their leaders are saying on social media. Over a million people in Rakhine and Chin have no access to 3G and 4G internet services following a government ban imposed last year by Suu Kyi’s government at the request of the military. The move is intended to crack down on a mounting insurgency by the Arakan Army in western Myanmar.
The largest ethnic-based party in parliament, the Arakan National Party (ANP), this month demanded to know how candidates could campaign in Rakhine state where the pandemic policies are locking people to their homes and some communities in the north are stuck in IDP camps because of the ongoing conflict.
The intensifying Covid-19 restrictions would add further questions over the integrity of the electoral process, one that is already marred by the disenfranchisement of Rohingya Muslims and the UEC’s initial exclusion of a major domestic observer group.
“The results of an election cannot accurately reflect the will of the people, when the right to vote is denied because of a person’s race, ethnicity or religion,” UN human rights investigator Thomas Andrews said during last week’s UN Human Rights Council meeting, referring to the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups. Rohingya candidates are also barred from running by the UEC.
Suu Kyi’s administration has banned international commercial flights but has yet to announce arrangements for media outlets and journalists to enter Myanmar for election reporting. The EU decided not to send an observer mission while the Atlanta-based Carter Center is hiring Myanmar nationals instead of foreigners as observers, a move with no precedent.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s second Covid-19 wave is proving to be more potent than its first in contagiousness. The lockdown is set to deal a severe blow to the economy, not least because Yangon accounts for almost a quarter of Myanmar’s GDP. Growth is already crimped by the earlier and softer lockdown, global economic downturn and falling investor confidence due to the Rohingya crisis and poor economic policies.
During the outbreak in April and May, businesspeople urged Myanmar authorities to communicate their Covid-19 measures effectively and allow time for employers and manufacturers to prepare for shutdowns.
The concerns were raised after official instructions to close factories and workplaces for virus inspections were released in the evening of the last day of the annual Thingyan long holiday, when businesses and workers were getting ready to resume operations.
But the government appears not to have listened to or acted on the request. The “stay-at-home” order for Yangon Region was published on September 20 ahead of an 8 am Monday implementation on September 21, leaving employers and employees with less than 24 hours to react. The lack of clarity in the initial order sowed confusion and chaos across industries.
A second wave is inevitably a huge challenge for the country but the government’s response has not made things easier for businesses, said Thaw Zin, a restaurant owner in north-central Yangon. “The authorities should have closed Yangon off sooner after the outbreak in Rakhine happened last month,” he told Asia Times.