Myanmar’s decade-long experiment with “discipline-flourishing democracy” may have ended on February 1 with the military coup d’etat, but the paperwork for the putsch was finalized on July 26 with the official annulment of the results of the November 2020 elections overwhelmingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
The Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that under provisions of the 2008 constitution and electoral laws that the November 8 nationwide polls were marred by 11,305,390 irregularities related to voting.
In its “investigation” into the conduct of the elections, the UEC claimed to have examined conditions in 315 of Myanmar’s 330 townships and interviewed local UEC officials, government administrators, police and immigration officers, and political party members.
The irregularities come in two broad categories: problems with the voter lists and invalid ballots found at polling stations. The largest figure was “mass inclusion of people without citizenship cards in the voter lists”, allegedly including 4,869,427 people. 3,596,206 people allegedly voted twice, and 295,405 voted thrice.
14,412 names on the voter lists were apparently ineligible for being under 18 years of age, and 20,566 people who are “(A)bove 100-year old” voted: a centenarian implausibility.
Like most of the data produced by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, there is a suspicious exactitude to the figures. When numbers could clearly be rounded up, the military insists on presenting every digit and column, that taken as a whole looks far more fabricated than the allegations of electoral irregularities.
Some of these alleged election shortcomings can be easily explained; others are complete fantasy. The UEC alleged wholesale breaches of the constitution and multiple laws, “in addition to the fact it was found that the election was not free and fair, the results of the 8 November election was annulled.”
The ultimate nonsensical element of the annulment evidence is that all of these disparate claims of irregularities or inconsistencies don’t add up to widespread fraud involving 11 million votes. If such fraud involved one-third of the electorate, it would have clearly been noticed by observers, political parties, the media and many voters at polling stations.
As one Western expert on Myanmar’s democratic reform told Asia Times, the claims of the military junta and the UEC is “one of the boldest electoral lies of the 21st century, a lie that did not fool the people.”
Of Myanmar’s 37 million eligible voters, turnout was 71%: much higher than expected given a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic had necessitated special mitigation measures with social distancing and protective equipment at polling stations and for poll workers, the majority in schools administered by teachers.
The ruling NLD won 80% of the seats, convincingly defeating its main opponent the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). All domestic and international observers, such as the Myanmar People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), declared that despite minor shortcomings at some polling stations, the elections were largely free of fraud.
Widespread electoral irregularities were the core justification for the coup and the formation of the Tatmadaw’s State Administration Council (SAC) junta on February 1. Like most of what the SAC presents, the annulment is ham-fisted propaganda, the culmination of a long process of painstakingly, if unconvincingly, compiled crude data of widespread and systematic malfeasance by the NLD.
The plan apparently began ahead of the November polls as far back as August, in a meeting with 34 political parties who sought reassurance from military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing over perceived NLD manipulation. The commander-in-chief warned people to vote for candidates that protected national interests and race and religion, and were free from foreign interests.
Pressure on the NLD to postpone the elections given the possibility of polling station super-spreader events were rebuffed by Suu Kyi, who rode roughshod over the weak and incompetent UEC.
Just days before the polls, Min Aung Hlaing warned in a statement that the “government has the complete responsibility for all the intentional and unintentional mistakes of the commission at its different levels.” This ominous warning was overlooked after the surprisingly well-executed election, largely due to the hard work of local officials and school teachers.
The three months between polling day and the convening of the national assembly on February 1 were marked by increasingly vitriolic Tatmadaw press conferences alleging widespread fraud. Mounting claims of irregularities were presented by military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun on January 26, where he claimed over 8 million irregularities were found and refused to rule out a military seizure of power.
The military claimed protection of the constitution as its motivating logic, but it was clearly outraged and fearful of the NLD’s second landslide victory and what it could mean for the Tatmadaw’s privileges and political power.
Perhaps sensing a possible coup, PACE and 11 other domestic election observation organizations released a joint statement asserting, “the domestic election observer groups found that the results of the elections were credible and reflected the will of the majority voters…we urge all other political parties and the Tatmadaw to respect the election…to ensure post-election stability and a peaceful power transition.”
To be sure, some of the UEC’s allegations of NLD interference have merit. There is no doubt that Suu Kyi used incumbent advantage in 2020 to position the NLD for a repeat victory. The UEC chair barely knew the constitution or electoral laws.
The NLD flouted pandemic curbs on election rallies with impunity, to the resentment of many other political parties. There is also some credence to claims of undue NLD involvement in helping with preparations for advance voting for people over 60 years old as a Covid-19 mitigation measure. But none of these acknowledged intrusions and disregard for the electoral rules in any way justifies a coup, nor do they require nullifying the election results.
Thein Soe, the former Tatmadaw general and head of the UEC in the tightly scripted 2010 elections, was reappointed to lead the UEC the day after the coup. This is probable evidence of pre-planning, but in an obviously “make it up as you go along” type of power-grab, casting aspersions on the election result and the NLD as the central culprit was the coup’s core justification.
In a meeting with 59 registered political parties in May, Thein Soe said, “What do we do to the NLD party that conspired by breaking the law? Should the party be disbanded? Prosecute those individuals who committed these acts as traitors to the country? We will take action accordingly.”
But the larger issue is that the announcement slams the door shut on democracy, even its disciplined version, and irrefutably ushers in a new age of military dictatorship. Any hope the military will hold new elections in a year, or two years, or anytime in the future are now clearly misplaced. The junta is hell-bent on eradicating the NLD for good, and Suu Kyi in particular.
The military’s previous State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime, which the SAC is clearly modeled on, promised to write a new constitution after the 1990 election results were ignored, so this is a circular process that has antecedents.
The National Convention process started in 1993 and staggered and tripped for 15 years before being passed in a flawed nationwide referendum of May 2008. This annulment closes the circle of electoral malfeasance that began with that referendum result announced in late May: 94% approval from a 99% turnout the week after Cyclone Nargis struck lower Myanmar, killing over 140,000 people.
Myanmar is now being ravaged by Covid-19, exacerbated by the Tatmadaw’s post-coup incompetence and greed, and people are dying needlessly while the SAC prioritizes absurdly unbelievable political machinations.
For the international community, particularly Western aid donors, the annulment will come as a stark realization that their investment in Myanmar’s elections and political development have been declared worthless. The SAC has euthanized a decade of democratic support, likely totaling more than US$100 million if multiple programs are taken into account.
These include technical support for the conduct of elections, training for political parties, support for national, state and regional parliamentary development and local governance, and ancillary support for civil society and community participation including laudable programming for women’s participation, people living with disabilities, and encouraging first-time voters.
Organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Westminster Foundation for Democracy, International IDEA, the Carter Center, United Nations agencies and scores of others all competed for access to the NLD and other political parties, lavishing trainings, lucrative study tours and assorted largesse to consolidate the fragile and constitutionally circumscribed democracy which had taken root in 2015 following the NLD’s first historic victory.
So unconvincing are the justifications for the 2020 election’s annulment, and so nationwide the anger over the coup and the regime’s callous disregard for human life amid the pandemic, that the memories of elections and participatory democracy will not easily be expunged. The junta’s autocratic algebra is simply not convincing, and only provides further evidence of the Tatmadaw’s proven track record of unelected incompetence and illegitimacy.
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace, and human rights issues on Myanmar