Myanmar Elections: What does a Burmese democracy stand for?


Picture Credit/ Asia Foundation

People across Myanmar made their way to polls, lining the streets and lanes on November 8. More than 90 parties competed for seats in the lower and upper house of parliament, and around 37 million eligible voters came out to vote, including five million first time voters. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of National League for Democracy (NLD), is widely expected to retain power. However, many seem to have lost their faith in the Nobel Peace Prize winner and her vision.

Since Myanmar’s historic vote in 2015, which saw the emergence of a democratically elected government, Suu Kyi is said to have done little to counter domestic issues. Despite being a beacon of hope during a five-decade long military rule, her party is accused of repeating the same mistakes and even being complicit in the ethnic cleansing that the military has been undertaking.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, has repeatedly attempted to muzzle her critics. In 2017, two journalists investigating violence against Rohingyas were arrested. Recently, a ban has been imposed on journalists from reporting on conflict in the Rakhine state where the Burmese military seems to be at war with the Arakan Army and other minority groups. The NLD has been severely criticized for their actions against ethnic minority groups who make one third of Myanmar’s population. Suu Kyi’s governance style has been criticised among investors and diplomats. Her party’s resistive actions (that faced opposition within the NLD) towards journalists and critics have made foreign ties worse with the U.S. and the European nations. The present government, in fact, has seemingly lost all credibility with the international community on account of their mishandling of the Rohingya crisis and other instances of ethnic cleansing. When the importance of solving the country's ethnic conflicts and violence against Rohingyas was raised by Ben Rhodes in 2013, Suu Kyi replied, “We will get those things done. But first must come constitutional reforms.”

Picture Credit / Asia News

Expectations were high in 2015 that the victory of NLD would entail drastic changes during its first term but have resulted in disappointment. Despite being portrayed as the herald of democracy, the NLD government has been unable to completely dethrone the military. Myanmar’s Constitution reserves a quarter of the seats in the parliament for the military. Suu Kyi’s government has been unable to do away with this provision.

Along with the Rohingya Muslims, other minorities are also facing the brunt of the Burmese nationalism. The Arakan people belonging to the Rakhine state have been subjected to regular violence against civilians, including regular airstrikes. Under the garb of the ongoing pandemic, the military has intensified attacks on ethnic minorities too.

The marginalization and demonization of ethnic groups has long been a part of the country’s history. In 1948 when Burma attained independence from the British, power was transferred to the Burmese minority. A year later, however, the country was torn by civil war among various ethnic groups. In 1962, a military coup devastated the ethnically divided government and consolidated military junta. Though the original aim was the decentralization of power to provide greater autonomy to ethnic states, the country saw a government consisting of a majority of Burmese Buddhists determined to impose Burmese Buddhist rule on all ethnic minorities.

This election has furthered the endeavor to marginalize ethnic minorities. 1.5 million people have been disenfranchised, including the Rohingya Muslims and others belonging to Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. There seems to be an active effort to exclude minorities even from this election by the government and the Election commission, leading to less than 70 per cent of the total population of Myanmar being allowed to vote. Responding to these allegations Mr Aung Shin, the party’s spokesperson, said “elections authorities are doing as much as they can to ensure free and fair elections”.

The Nobel Peace Prize and leader of Myanmar’s government Aung San Suu Kyi.

Additionally, the country officially recorded a surge in Covid-19 cases which should have been reason enough, apparently, to delay the election. What is worrying is the havoc that the pandemic has wreaked upon Myanmar’s society and economy, thanks to Myanmar’s disoriented healthcare system. Majority of the country’s population is employed in the informal sector. The dearth of safety measures for these workers makes the system as a whole more vulnerable. A country that recently emerged from a military regime that gutted its social and welfare systems, including health and education, is hardly prepared for the late virulent outbreak of COVID-19 that they are currently witnessing.

According to reports from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Myanmar’s domestic economic activity as well as exports and remittances have plummeted. The country is majorly dependent on revenues from export of natural gas which is about 40% of its total GDP but given the current strain on global oil prices, Myanmar’s fiscal and current account deficit has further intensified to a larger extent. The situation has deteriorated with agriculture, businesses and even the household sectors getting affected.

The coronavirus just adds another weight to multiple problems the country is facing. NLD’s image stands tarnished in the country and the world due to their stance on various issues - from the goddess of democracy Suu Kyi seems to have become an accomplice of the military. However, supporters of the party and their charming leader are vehement in their faith. They point out that one term in power is inadequate to bring about radical changes when the government is still under the compulsion of power-sharing with the military.

Keeping these things in mind, one begins to question what Aung San Suu Kyi’s future and promise of democracy actually had in store? What does it mean to be democratic after five decades of military rule? With the recently concluded US election as well the Bihar election - one is reminded not to take notions like that of democracy for granted.


Authors: Mallika Anand, Kabir Kalia, Kavya Kothiyal

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