Supporters of the National League for Democracy party (in red) pass supporters of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party during an election campaign event in Yangon on Nov. 6 ahead of Myanmar's Nov. 8 general election. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
While the world’s attention is on the presidential election in the United States, and Donald Trump’s so far unsubstantiated allegations of fraud, there is another election on Nov. 8 which is inherently not free and fair — in Myanmar.
For only the fourth time in three decades, the people of Myanmar go to the polls. Yet this election is unlike any of the other three.
In 1990, the military regime held elections which were overwhelmingly won by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), but the regime’s response was to reject the results and imprison the victors. The military continued to rule directly, in uniform, for another 20 years.
In 2010, after imposing a new constitution via a sham referendum two years earlier, the military began a transition towards so-called civilian government, but they made sure that their political party, led by former generals, won the election and continued in power.
The election five years ago gave Myanmar real hope for the first time, and the world celebrated. Following a reform era led by President Thein Sein, a former general, which saw the release of political prisoners, the opening of space for civil society and the media, fragile ceasefires in the ethnic states, and the engagement of Aung San Suu Kyi in the political process, the NLD once again won a landslide victory — and this time the army accepted the result.
Although the military-drafted constitution prohibited Daw Suu, as she is widely known, from becoming president — because it forbids anyone who had been married to a foreigner from taking up the presidency — her advisers created a new role, that of “state counselor”, which made her de facto head of government.
No one expected miracles overnight, and few would have denied the challenges of leading a civilian government in which the army still retains such power. The constitution gives the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament and control of three key ministries — home affairs, border affairs and defense — as well as control over its own budget. The concept of civilian oversight of the armed forces has proved illusive. Nevertheless, there was hope that a fragile democratization was at long last beginning.
Five years on, and these elections feel very different. Not quite a step back to the full sham of 2010 or the military’s total disregard for the will of the people in the aftermath of the 1990 election, nevertheless they represent a reversal of any meaningful progress towards democracy and human rights. They are less free and fair than the elections five years ago.
Any election under the 2008 constitution is inherently compromised. Yet even within the constraints of the constitution, Daw Suu’s government has taken steps that further undermine the integrity of the election. Crucially, millions of people are disenfranchised.
The entire Rohingya population is excluded, for a start. Not only the hundreds of thousands who are now refugees in Bangladesh but also those that remain in the country, despite a call by the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar to ensure that everyone eligible to vote in 2010 could do so this time. The Union Election Commission (UEC) went even further and banned Rohingya candidates from standing, even though they were able to contest previous elections.
But it’s not only the Rohingya. The UEC has canceled voting in at least 56 townships in the ethnic areas, leaving an estimated 1.5 million people in significant parts of Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, Karen and Mon states and Bago region disenfranchised. The pretext is security considerations due to armed conflict in those areas, but excluding ethnic peoples from the democratic process will exacerbate not resolve conflict. As Shan activist Sai Wansai warned, “the narrowing of political space will lead to a widening of the theatre of war.”
On top of this, almost all of Myanmar’s 5 million migrant workers abroad, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced peoples and refugees on Myanmar’s borders and at least 200 political prisoners will be unable to vote.
Furthermore, Myanmar prohibits the country’s half a million religious clergy of all faiths from voting — an issue Cardinal Charles Maung Bo spoke out about passionately earlier this year. “As cardinal I can make statements and speeches and encourage citizens to vote, but I am myself barred from voting,” he said. “This is an extremely unusual arrangement. I am not aware of any other democracy in which this is a requirement.” He described voting as a “sacred responsibility”.
Space shrinks for free expression
Just as alarmingly, censorship has returned despite a so-called democratic government. For the first time in almost a decade, some news outlets and human rights websites have been banned, opposition parties have had official election statements in state media censored and fears are growing that criticizing the government can lead to arrest, imprisonment, fines and death threats. The British government’s annual human rights and democracy report states that “the space for free expression in Myanmar continued to shrink”.
Covid-19 is a further impediment to free and fair elections. Restrictions in place due to the pandemic have limited the ability of all political parties and candidates to campaign, but smaller parties and those in ethnic areas with internet restrictions are disproportionately impacted, as they have less access to state broadcasting facilities.
The backdrop to all of this is lack of any progress on human rights under the NLD government. Indeed, Myanmar has gone backwards in regard to human rights. Military offensives in the ethnic areas have continued, political prisoners have increased, freedom of expression has declined, religious intolerance has grown and a genocide has been perpetrated on Daw Suu’s watch.
Her inability to prevent the crimes committed against the Rohingya could be forgiven because she has no control of the army, but her willingness to go to the International Court of Justice, unnecessarily, to defend them leaves everyone asking: what happened to Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate and heroine of democracy?
Even in regard to gender, there is no improvement despite Daw Suu being at the helm. In four years of government, she has not appointed a single female minister, and in these elections only 15.6 percent of over 7,000 candidates originally approved are female. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Myanmar ranks 167 out of 191 countries for female representation.
A new report by Progessive Voice titled “A Vote with No Confidence” argues that tomorrow’s polls “fail fundamentally to meet international standards for democratic elections”. Moreover, they “risk further undermining trust, aggravating grievances of ethnic nationalities and obstructing prospects for peace”.
To salvage some hope from the multitude of setbacks, one could arguably say that at least Myanmar is having multi-party elections for the second time in five years — and not having to wait decades as it used to. One could argue that the country’s fragile democratization takes time, that few countries move from brutal dictatorship to stable democracy overnight, and that such a process will always encounter hurdles. Those are valid points, but they don’t obscure the regression that has occurred under the NLD government, nor the fact that these elections are deeply flawed.
And so we should pray for Myanmar. Pray that whatever government emerges after the election, it will be one that will prioritize the rights of all its people, of whatever ethnicity or religion, pursue genuine peace in the ethnic areas, counter religious intolerance and protect and strengthen fundamental freedoms.
Pray with Cardinal Bo for “the flowering of a robust democracy” which is, he says, “the only hope for curing this nation, bleeding with fraternal conflict”. Pray, as he does, for “servant leaders” who will tackle the challenges of poverty, hatred, the environment and conflict and build a better Myanmar after tomorrow.
Benedict Rogers is senior analyst for East Asia at CSW and author of three books on Myanmar, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads” as well as a book about his journey into the Catholic Church, “From Burma to Rome”. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.