Myanmar’s election woes: Controversies, COVID-19 hurt chances for reform

Photo: Phyo WP, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With just over a week until Myanmar’s general election on November 8, the country is struggling with a myriad of controversies surrounding the vote while COVID-19 cases continue to rise.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party is widely expected to remain in power following Myanmar’s second democratic general election since its transition away from junta rule in 2010.

But the lead up to the vote has been marred by a series of controversies that undermine its legitimacy. Actions by the Union Election Commission (UEC), civil wars and election-related violence, among other factors, have tilted the election in favor of the NLD and the most popular opposition party, the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—at the expense of ethnic political parties and others pushing for a more representative democracy. 

In mid-October, the UEC announced that voting would be cancelled in parts of Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, Karen and Mon states and Bago Region. The move effectively denies as many as 2 million people the right to vote, representing around 5% of eligible voters in 52 constituencies. The majority of voters affected—around 1.2 million—are in Rakhine State, which has seen ongoing fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA).

The UEC’s announcement drew condemnation at home and abroad. A representative of Burma Human Rights Network, Kyaw Win, said the UEC is “blatantly denying minorities representation” by cancelling the vote in some ethnic areas.

The UEC has also failed to ensure that the millions of Myanmar nationals living abroad have a way to safely cast their votes. A small percentage of the 2-4 million Myanmar nationals living in Thailand have been able to cast votes and the 1 million or more Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh continue to be denied the right to vote, as they were in past elections. According to the UEC, less than 100,000 voters abroad have cast ballots.

At the same time, Myanmar has witnessed at least 40 cases of election-related violence since August, according to the New Myanmar Foundation, including abductions and a grenade attack. In one case in mid-October, a mob of supporters with the USDP, which held power from 2011-15, attacked and fatally injured a man wearing an NLD shirt in Kanbalu Township, Sagaing Region. Local police and USDP representatives called the incident a brawl.

Photo: Pxfuel

Military continues to shape election despite democratic transition

There have also been allegations of impropriety directed at the military. Military advisors reportedly pushed the UEC to cancel votes in ethnic areas. In October, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a national announcement calling for voters to support candidates who will protect “race and religion”—arguably a reference to the Burman race and Buddhism. 

Members of the military and their families account for over 1 million voters in Myanmar and military leaders have been accused of influencing or controlling these votes in prior elections. This year, at least one local election commission—overseeing the vote in Yangon’s western district—has begun to discount some advanced votes from military personnel after their ballots arrived unsealed.

Since coming to power in 2015, the NLD has been unable or unwilling to curtail the power of the country’s military, which retains control over a mandated 25% of seats in both houses of the legislature as well as several key government ministries. The NLD’s failure to check military power came to international attention in 2017 when the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar army, carried out ethnic cleansing or genocidal campaigns against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.

The current government has also been unable to deliver on promises to reform the constitution, drafted by the military in 2008. Constitutional amendments require the approval of more than 75% of the legislature—a nearly impossible majority given the military’s hold on 25% of seats.

Rohingya in a camp near Myebon, Rakhine State. Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Ethnic parties struggle to gain foothold as NLD leadership wanes

Under the NLD’s leadership, civil wars in multiple states have intensified and the country’s non-Burman ethnic groups have become increasingly disenchanted with Suu Kyi’s party, instead embracing a range of parties focused on ethnic representation.

In some of the areas where the UEC has cancelled voting, the threat of violence is real and present. Many areas of Rakhine State affected by the decision are active conflict zones. In Shan State in late October, soldiers with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), an ethnic armed group in northeastern Myanmar, fired on local government officials as they were delivering ballots. The RCSS said the incident was a misunderstanding but considers the area—Mongpan township—to be a frontline conflict zone.

Non-Burman ethnic groups account for at least a third of the country’s population but ethnic nationality parties hold only just over 8% of seats in the legislature. Lahpai Seng Raw, co-founder of Myanmar’s Metta Development Foundation, points to three key factors that disproportionately benefit national parties like the NLD and the USDP over smaller ethnic parties. 

First, well-financed larger parties are able to garner more votes in areas with diverse ethnic populations and stand a wide field of candidates—much like in the UK. Second, conflicts in ethnic states drive displacement and migration, making fair elections challenging at best even before the UEC’s move to cancel votes in some areas. Third, the voter demographics of ethnic areas are changing quickly due to internal migration and a recent change to election laws. 

Many people in Myanmar move every year seeking work, often travelling from the country’s Bamar-majority core to ethnic-majority areas. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a law allowing citizens to vote in a constituency after living there for only 90 days, down from the previous requirement of 180 days. The change drew condemnation from ethnic political parties as it dilutes the political power of local communities in areas with high numbers of migrants—like those near Kachin State’s jade mines.

As Lahpai Seng Raw wrote recently for The Transnational Institute, “with the peace process faltering, the question remains whether equality can be obtained through elections under the present political system or whether the results will further entrench the inequalities and marginalisation that have been at the heart of state failure since 1948.”

“The need for peace and national reconciliation is urgent,” Lahpai Seng Raw added.

Myanmar’s government is also almost entirely dominated by men, aside from Aung San Suu Kyi, and the 2020 election won’t change this—only 16% of candidates are women.

COVID-19 cases remain high ahead of election day

The NLD is also benefiting disproportionately from the pandemic, as both the ruling party and the USDP have flouted the government’s COVID-19 restrictions during their campaigns. At the same time, many smaller parties say they’re unable to safely campaign because of rising cases of COVID-19.

Yangon. Photo: Thar Lun Naing, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases since August, with over 1,000 cases per day recorded in Yangon alone. To date, the government has recorded over 1,200 deaths from the virus and more than 50,000 cases.

With an under-resourced healthcare system and a dearth of doctors and nurses in many areas, the country’s COVID-19 strategy depends in large part on volunteers. More than 15,000 people are currently volunteering as part of a coordinated response in Yangon alone, according to the  Yangon Region Youth Affairs Committee.

As of October 27, over 60,000 people were in quarantine, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Though cases had begun to decline in Yangon by late October, they were on the rise again in Rakhine State and Mandalay, Bago and Ayeyarwady.

The country’s prisons have been hit especially hard, with over 150 inmates at Bago’s Tharyarwady Prison and over 100 inmates and staff at a prison in Ayeyarwady’s Maubin Prison testing positive for the virus in October.

In the first months of the pandemic, pundits and journalists speculated as to whether Myanmar’s election would be delayed. But as COVID-19 cases rise and voters head to the polls, it appears the virus is yet another factor helping to preserve the NLD’s hold on power—at the expense of democracy.

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