Myanmar’s upcoming election won’t bring a much-needed overhaul of the country’s government, but it does serve to point to where renewed vision and political will are needed going forward.
Though Myanmar is preparing for a general election in November—the third of its new democracy—there is little chance for a major political overhaul to address the country’s many-sided crises.
Over the past five years, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has largely fallen short of expectations, both among voters and supporters of democracy abroad. The NLD government kowtowed to the military—most notably during ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya—and refused to address the needs of communities across ethnic states and regions.
The NLD’s struggles are due in part to the constraints of the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which ensures that Myanmar’s military remains central to political and economic power structures, controlling key government ministries and much of the economy through state and crony-owned companies.
The constitution also limits the possibilities for progress through the upcoming election, as it allocates 25% of seats in Parliament to be appointed by the military—while also requiring a majority of more than 75% to approve any constitutional amendments.
But the challenges of Myanmar’s election also point to where renewed vision and political will are needed.
As U Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner, wrote recently, “Our country deserves so much better after experiencing decades of harsh authoritarian rule. Yet, human rights violations continue on a daily basis in ethnic states. The civil war directly affects our democratic transition and politicians need to understand this and commit not just in words but deeds to the pursuit of a just peace.”
Myanmar’s election leaves many behind and guarantees they will remain unrepresented
The vote is already marred by a series of problems that threaten its legitimacy but which also give a clear picture of areas that activists and reformers will need to address.
The active civil war in western Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states, between the Arakan Army (AA) and the military, has derailed the voter registration process in many townships, which may prevent local residents as well as over 200,00 displaced people from casting ballots.
Where the voter registration process has continued, authorities have posted voter lists with numerous errors. As of early August, only 17.6% of eligible voters had reportedly checked their information on the lists and 400,000 people had already filed corrections with election authorities.
Millions of migrant workers and other Myanmar nationals living abroad may also be unable to vote. There are at least 4 million Myanmar migrants living in Thailand—a significant number, considering that an estimated 37 million people inside Myanmar are eligible to vote in November. In the 2015 election, only 600 Myanmar nationals voted in Bangkok and Chiang Mai combined. Despite this, the government has made little effort to help voters abroad register or to set up a process that would allow them to participate.
The 800,000 or more Rohingya refugees forced into Bangladesh by the military in 2017 will also not be able to cast votes. Rohingya have been barred from voting since the 2015 election, on the grounds that they aren’t citizens. But they were already denied citizenship long before, despite detailed records that officials could have used to determine voting rights.
Election regulations restrict Myanmar’s democracy in an attempt to protect it
Inside Myanmar, the Union Election Commission (UEC) enforces a number of policies that preserve the political status quo, allowing the NLD and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to maintain control—both are dominated by ethnic Burmese.
For one, the UEC—which is not a judicial body—interprets election law to determine whether parties and candidates are eligible to participate in the election. The UEC has already rejected five Muslim candidates, four of them Rohingya, on dubious grounds.
New voter registration rules also now allow migrants within the country to vote for representatives in a constituency after living there for only three months. As many ethnic Burmese work seasonally in ethnic states and regions, this means voters who are only temporary residents may swing a given constituency away from the ethnic political parties that better represent local interests.
The UEC also places strict controls on all electoral campaigns. The UEC only allows candidates to campaign during a designated period beginning in September. Before then, parties are allowed to drum up support but individuals are not—which places the many independent candidates in this year’s poll at a disadvantage. This year has seen a number of workers and farmers announce runs for office outside of the existing party system, though at this point there are no English reports on how many actually registered to run with the UEC.
“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” said Human Rights Watch Asia Legal Adviser Linda Lakhdhir. “Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process.”
“Some restrictions imposed by the commission block equal opportunities and free speech for all political parties,” said Min Zeyar, a leader of the new People’s Party, speaking with Radio Free Asia.
Myanmar isn’t the only place where election missteps are highlighting how easily democracy can get off track—look to the state of voting rights in the US and the country’s readiness to bend its laws to preserve the status quo. These missteps tell citizens where to spend their organizing efforts and make their voices heard.
Myanmar’s election authorities and government also may still address issues with the voting and campaigning processes. The UEC reversed course recently to allow the country’s largest election monitoring group People’s Alliance for Credible Elections.
But the election won’t bring the level of change necessary to unearth Myanmar’s deeply-entrenched political and economic inequality.
“This is a critical juncture for Burma. We must voice our demands to politicians that in their incoming manifestos they unequivocally support free speech, expression and assembly,” wrote U Bo Kyi, who now helps lead the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. “Rising inequality is not an inevitable consequence of development, but a result of choices made by politicians.”