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November 28, 2020

Elections in Myanmar

Opinion

November 28, 2020

Myanmar’s parliamentary elections took place on November 8, but Rohingya Muslims and some other ethnic groups were not allowed to participate in them. This was the first election after the genocide of the Rohingya in the Rakhine state in 2017.

It was the second election since the power-sharing agreement between the military junta and the National League for Democracy. As expected, the NLD won with a landslide and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a humiliating defeat.

According to the results announced by Myanmar Union Election Commission, the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi won 396 seats to form government for a second term. The party increased its majority in both houses of parliament. The NLD had won the previous elections and formed government after signing a power-sharing deal with the military junta.

The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, the main opposition party, won 26 seats, and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, representing the ethnic Shan minority, won 15 seats. The Shan, whose homeland is in eastern Myanmar, are the country's largest ethnic minority. The USDP has called the election unfair and refused to accept the election results, but the election commission has rejected its claim as well as its demand for a fresh vote.

Having the majority control of parliament does not give the NLD full control of government, though. The army-drafted constitution of 2008 grants the military 25 percent of the total seats, enough to block constitutional changes. Several key ministerial positions are also reserved for military appointees.

The civilian led Union Election Commission cited the dangers of the ongoing combat between government forces and ethnic minority guerrillas, but independent journalists and human rights groups believe that the decision to cancel elections in certain areas was political and seems to be to keep parties hostile to the current government out of parliament.

One of the guerrilla groups, the Arakan Army, has said that it will extend a unilateral ceasefire to December 31 to allow by-elections to be held in areas of Rakhine province where voting had been cancelled.

This election once again shows that, despite problems of consolidating power and solving long-standing issues of the economy and ethnic nationalist conflicts in the last five years, the support base of Suu Kyi and the NLD is still widespread and strong.

Despite their tarnished image, Suu Kyi and the NLD are the only ones with grassroots outreach across Myanmar. The NLD played a leading role against the military junta and for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Thousands of NLD workers and leaders were put in prison and thousands forced into exile.

People still relate to it as a historic opposition, as a bulwark against military rule. Despite the failures of the peace process and the rising anger towards the party in some ethnic minority regions, it has been able to maintain its support base not only in the Buddhist population but also in some other regions.

The NLD and Suu Kyi’s government came under severe criticism after failing to protect the Rohingya from a genocide in which state forces and extremist Buddhist groups were involved. Aung San even failed to condemn the genocide in clear terms.

It will be interesting to see how the NLD uses its increased majority in parliament to assert itself. The party will potentially have the opportunity to follow through on promised reforms that would reduce the power of the military junta. So, a major power struggle seems to be on the cards. This struggle between a more confident NLD and the powerful military junta will determine the future course of Myanmar. This struggle will decide whether democracy will flourish or the military will continue to call shots under the power-sharing agreement. Myanmar suffered nearly 50 years of isolation and decay under a strict military rule, and Aung San Suu Kyi herself spent many years under house arrest before the generals began to loosen their hold on power and the first elections were held in 2011.

This time, though, the ballot was seen as a referendum on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which maintained its popularity at home even as the Rohingya crisis damaged its international reputation. Polling was cancelled in conflict areas within the country, affecting some 1.5 million people.

International and domestic observers said the vote went smoothly and without major irregularities, but there has been criticism of the commission’s lack of transparency and its cancellation of the polls across many ethnic minority areas, which sparked more outrage in already restive areas.

There is some relief among a few ethnic minority communities after the crushing defeat of the Union Solidarity and Development Party -- the military’s political proxy which openly promotes Islamophobia, xenophobia, and racism against the Rohingya community.

There is systemic denial of basic human rights and citizenship for the Rohingya as a Myanmar-based national community with its own linguistic and ethnic identity. A Los Angeles Times’s editorial dated November 14 correctly pointed out that, “nothing has tarnished Suu Kyi’s international reputation and disillusioned her admirers more than her refusal to protect Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, one of the most oppressed populations in the world. Sadly, many human rights activists who once revered her now believe she is a Myanmar Buddhist who simply does not recognize the rights of the Rohingya to be full citizens.”

The hybrid regime in Myanmar has shown no sign of reversing its genocidal policies towards this protected group. One Myanmar journalist Ben Dunant brilliantly described the situation in Myanmar in a national daily: “Journalists and activists who dare to criticize a popular government have reported regular abuse from outraged members of the public, and demonstrations in favor of press freedom have not attracted more than a few dozen participants. The outcome of the election suggests there is little electoral cost to the government [in] putting its critics in jail because few voters have sympathy for them. It exposes the vast gulf that exists between human rights discourse and popular sentiment.”

This election has shown that the majority of the Burmese electorate did not seem to be overly concerned about the fact that the Union Election Commission established by Suu Kyi’s puppet-president Win Myint canceled elections, either wholly or partially, in over 50 predominantly minority townships and villages, on grounds of security.

The writer is a freelance journalist.