Myanmar’s general election on November 8, the third in only a decade since the transition from military rule, could be seen as another victory in the country’s struggle for freedom and democracy. It isn’t.
Even if the country is able to successfully hold elections amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which has recently surged in Myanmar, and ongoing civil conflicts, it will be no closer to genuine peace or national reconciliation.
The party slated to win in a landslide, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), has openly defended perpetrators of genocide, the Myanmar military.
And the victims, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled the country and the 600,000 that remain in conflict-ridden Rakhine State, remain disenfranchised from the electoral process.
At least six Rohingya candidates have been disqualified due to their alleged inability to prove citizenship, despite strong evidence to the contrary. In total, the Union Election Commission (UEC) has barred 42 candidates due to discriminatory citizenship criteria.
The Covid-19 pandemic throws an additional wrench into election planning. The government issued stay-at-home orders in September as daily cases grew by more than 800%.
The public health measure has locked down Myanmar’s largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, as well as all of Rakhine State during a critical campaigning period, reshaping the election environment to clearly favor the incumbent party.
The Global New Light of Myanmar, Myanmar Alin and other large, pro-government newspapers have continued to operate, while independent media have taken a hit from the pandemic after being declared non-essential businesses.
Despite widespread calls by opposition parties to postpone the election, the UEC has vowed that voting will take place as scheduled – an action out of step with the principles of a free and fair democracy.
The government’s response to ongoing violence has also undermined the electoral process. Authorities recently announced the cancellation of elections in multiple townships, most notably in Rakhine and Shan states, due to conflict between the military and ethnic armed organizations.
The result, largely seen as politically motivated, is the widespread disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities in regions that heavily favor ethnic parties, such as the Arakan National Party (ANP), over the NLD.
The NLD’s suppression of democracy will further alienate the already passionate Rakhine nationalists, who see the government as a colonizing force responsible for their political and economic grievances.
The 2018 arrest of ANP chairman Aye Maung for his strident criticism of the NLD further stoked Rakhine irredentism and popular support for the separatist Arakan Army. Tellingly, on October 14, the Arakan Army kidnapped three NLD candidates.
In the run-up to elections, disinformation and fake news have sown further confusion and undermined voter confidence. Dubious Facebook accounts have peddled content discrediting the ruling party and levying personal attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi.
A common smear tactic has accused the NLD of being pro-Muslim. For example, one story alleged that the NLD was replacing candidates with Rohingya. Other fake stories have characterized the NLD as cracking down on Buddhism.
There have also been false reports that Aung San Suu Kyi contracted Covid-19. Much of the disinformation on social media has been pro-military and supportive of the Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), the military-aligned opposition.
The slew of fake news appears a last-ditch effort by the unpopular USDP to retain relevance despite the NLD’s overwhelming popularity.
With no significant leadership changes on the horizon, the NLD is slated to further entrench its autocratic governance. Though the NLD initiated important parliamentary debates on reforming the flawed 2008 constitution, which ensures the military’s continued grip on political power, it has backtracked in other significant areas of reform.
The party has demonstrated a troubling willingness to undermine democratic principles –freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly – that it finds politically obstructive.
The government has imposed blanket restrictions on internet access in conflict-affected areas of Rakhine State since 2018, limiting vulnerable communities’ access to critical information during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has blocked internet access to ethnic minority news outlets over “national security concerns.”
Peaceful student protesters calling for an end to war and the government-imposed internet blackout in Rakhine State face charges and jail terms for disrupting public tranquility or for committing “offenses against the state.”
The NLD has also targeted the press for reporting on unpopular government policies. Most memorably, it imprisoned two Reuters journalists for 18 months for violating the Official State Secrets Act during their investigation of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslims.
The NLD’s pattern of punishing critics is not limited to the Rohingya crisis; in August, government officials filed sedition charges against a candidate challenging Aung San Suu Kyi for her seat in parliament. The candidate, Htay Aung, accused Suu Kyi of using public funds and foreign aid for her campaign.
This autocratic turn is confounding in light of the NLD’s mantle as the democratic opposition that long struggled against the former military junta, which disbanded the party after it decisively won the 1990 election and confined Suu Kyi to years of house arrest.
Today’s youth activists trying to make their country more democratic can no longer look to “Daw Suu,” as she is affectionately known across Myanmar, as an icon of freedom and hope.
Assuming that the government manages to hold minimally safe and transparent elections, now in doubt, the NLD appears set to win another decisive majority. However, its problems will not end on election day.
When Myanmar’s new parliament convenes for the first time in February 2021, legislators will select a new president and two vice-presidents. According to Myanmar’s constitution, should it win a majority in national elections, the NLD will appoint the chief ministers for each of the country’s 14 regions and states, regardless of whether or not it wins a majority in those states.
This power has drawn criticism from ethnic minority parties, who feel their share of power does not reflect their grassroots support. Ethnic political parties are generally expected to fare better in next month’s election, with many learning the hard lesson from 2015 that coalition-building, rather than competition amongst ethnic parties, is the most viable path to political relevance.
For better or worse, the NLD needs support from opposition parties and ethnic minority parties for its primary political agenda – constitutional reform. That includes allies within the military-aligned USDP and even military MPs, who enjoy de facto control of 25% of all seats in the Union Parliament as well as state and regional legislatures.
Otherwise, any proposed amendments to the 2008 Constitution will be fruitless. The NLD will also need to address the stalled peace process.
Over the first five years of Suu Kyi’s tenure, only two additional ethnic armed organizations have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Absent a change in approach, it is unlikely the NLD will see new successes in peace talks.
Ultimately, the NLD needs to abandon its zero-sum approach to governance. Power-sharing is an essential pillar of democratic stability, particularly in a nation with Myanmar’s rich ethnic diversity.
If Suu Kyi and her party subvert core democratic principles like freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and universal suffrage in their quest to wrest political power from the military, they will undermine Myanmar’s entire democratic project.
In retrospect, the 2020 election may appear insignificant given the country’s democratic drift.
Evan Brandaw is a foreign policy professional specializing in Southeast Asia. A graduate of Occidental College, he has worked at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and the US Senate. Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and an independent consultant.