Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi looks at voting lists at an administrative office in Naypyidaw on Aug. 14. (Photo: AFP)
The year 2020 is a great challenge for the world as most countries struggle to contain the novel coronavirus that has affected millions of people and taken thousands of lives.
Covid-19 has not spared Myanmar, a poor and underdeveloped Southeast Asian nation that isolated itself from the world for over six decades under a repressive military regime.
It’s a deeply worrying situation for a country with a weak healthcare system and one of the lowest health expenditures in the ASEAN region.
Meanwhile, conflicts between the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's military, and armed ethnic groups continue to rage in minority areas, especially in Rakhine and Chin states, forcing thousands to flee their homes.
It’s a precarious situation in the conflict-torn nation as more than 300,000 internally displaced persons remain in makeshift camps in ethnic regions including Kachin state.
Whether it’s a blessing or a stroke of luck, Myanmar has relatively few Covid-19 cases despite a surge in other Asian countries. As of Aug. 14, it had 369 confirmed cases including six deaths and 321 recoveries, according to health officials.
One can imagine Myanmar’s uphill battle to tackle the virus as even rich and developed nations struggle with far higher numbers of infections.
Thanks to the dedication of frontline health workers, volunteers and civil society groups, Myanmar has not faced a worsening situation despite Covid-19's economic and social impacts on the country’s development and poor and marginalized people.
For Myanmar, 2020 is a significant year as peace talks will be held this month and a general election is slated for Nov. 8 amid the struggle with the pandemic.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi initiated the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference to bring all armed ethnic groups to the negotiation table. Three peace talks have been held so far. The peace process, however, has stalled during the last two years and the government could not hold the fourth session of the peace conference.
After several negotiations and meetings, the government, the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups that signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) agreed to hold peace talks from Aug. 19-21.
As Covid-19 restrictions remain in place, the three-day meeting will be held with limited delegates under guidelines from the Ministry of Health and Sports.
A vital election
It’s the final round of peace talks under Suu Kyi’s government ahead of the Nov. 8 general election that will provide a test of Myanmar's transition from a military dictatorship to a democratic country.
It's important for the government to emphasize Suu Kyi’s promises of prioritizing peace and to convince people inside and outside Myanmar that the nation is on the right track to achieving peace.
Anticipating important elections and the peace conference, church figures led by Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon have appealed to the country’s leaders “to listen with respect to one another” and determine “to seek the good of all.”
“To build a nation we need not be afraid of difference, but rather learn to negotiate, compromise, dialogue and rejoice in who we are,” faith leaders said in a statement on July 13.
The government has been criticized for its performance in seeking peace, maintaining the rule of law, amending the constitution and guiding a slowing economy in the last four years.
It poses a challenge for Suu Kyi’s inclusive and reconciliation bid as seven armed ethnic groups who did not sign the NCA — including the Kachin Independence Army and United Wa State Army — will not attend this week’s peace conference, citing Covid-19 regulations.
The Arakan Army, which is part of an alliance of seven groups, is still engaged in a conflict with the Tatmadaw and excluded from the conference.
However, the key thing for all stakeholders is to take the negotiations and agreements into the post-election period as there will be new players in the country following the Nov. 8 polls.
Observers say it’s a complicated peace process. Building trust will be difficult among stakeholders, especially between the military who stick to the controversial 2008 constitution and armed ethnic groups fighting for self-determination and federalism.
The generals still retain a significant role in Myanmar’s politics despite the Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) winning a landslide victory at the 2015 election.
Of particular concern to pro-democracy campaigners is a provision that grants military MPs the power to veto any proposed charter changes, especially any amendments that would curb their political power.
The 2008 charter mandates that a quarter of all parliamentary seats must be reserved for the military. It also gives them control of three key portfolios — home affairs, defense and border security.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, retains strong support inside the country, especially from regions with a majority of Bamar people, although her status as a democracy icon has waned in the West due to her perceived failure to speak out against military mistreatment of the Rohingya and other ethnic groups.
She will contest again in Kawhmu township, Yangon’s regional constituency, in the election in which candidates from 96 political parties will vie for 1,171 seats in the upper and lower houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
Observers believe the NLD is most likely to win the polls as the Covid-19 measures and Suu Kyi’s defense of Myanmar at the International Court of Justice at The Hague last December gained much support.
No matter who wins, it's certain that the civilian government elected by public support and the military, which still regards itself as the savior, will be sharing power for the 2021-25 term.
The country’s future peace and development largely depend on the key stakeholders who will work for the sake of the people.
Myanmar people who have longed for peace do not deserve civil war. As faith leaders in the country have said: “Let a new Myanmar of hope, peace and prosperity dawn as we march towards the goal of democracy through elections.”
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.