Author: David I Steinberg, Georgetown University
With 93 political parties participating and some 37 million potential voters, Myanmar’s 8 November elections are an important step on an ill-defined road towards more representative, responsive governance. It is a road without a clear end, strewn with potholes and dangerous political, social and economic curves.
This election will be seen as another notch in the democratic process for Myanmar. It is likely to be generally free and fair. Restrictions will abound in the Rakhine region where fighting persists. The COVID-19 pandemic is also becoming more severe in Myanmar. Given these difficulties, the holding of a general election is progress in itself.
The change in Myanmar from military rule to civilian control and some form of militarily-defined ‘discipline-flourishing’ democratic state remains difficult. Some call the administration of president Thein Sein (2011–2016) a ‘quasi-military’ government and the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi (2016–2021) a ‘quasi-civilian’ government. What could result from the 2020 elections is a ‘quasi-democratic’ administration — a uniquely Burmese government tenuously balancing an amalgam of military, civilian and diverse ethnic minority interests. Free and fair elections are necessary for change, but they alone don’t make a democracy.
The dramatic transition from the procedural and public reforms of former president Thein Sein to the overwhelming victory of the NLD in the widely-applauded 2015 elections raised optimistic domestic and international expectations of decisive democratic transition and a solution to the pervasive dilemma of distributing power and resources among Myanmar’s ethnic communities.
This has not yet happened. A victory for the NLD over the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the 2020 elections is expected this time too, but with some waning support for the NLD in ethnic minority areas. Aung San Suu Kyi remains overwhelmingly popular in ethnically Bamah regions, confirming the NLD is increasingly regarded as the party of the majority Bamah, not the country’s other 40 per cent.
The performance of the NLD has been disappointing in spite of some progress on administrative reforms and modest economic growth. The peace process has stalled and ethnic rebellions have spread, most dangerously in Rakhine state where the Buddhist Arakan Army — now labelled by authorities a ‘terrorist’ organisation — has increased support. National economic performance has been lacklustre, new foreign investment unimpressive.
The plan for some form of federal distribution of power — an impetus approved in principle by Myanmar’s tatmadaw (military), NLD and minority parties — remains not only unimplemented but undefined. The development of a new generation of leadership is still to come. Important but limited democratic political and human rights reforms still do not prevent state and legal harassment nor restrictions on liberties. An independent judiciary is conspicuously absent.
The unresolved Muslim Rohingya tragedy, ignored in election campaigns so far, has cast a pall over relations with the West, especially with the United States. But it may have united the Bamah population. Chinese support for the government even in the wake of its Rohingya policies, together with its Belt and Road Initiative, has improved China’s official standing in Myanmar. US policy in Myanmar has shifted from promoting democratic governance to restraining Chinese ambitions there.
All Myanmar’s problems have been complicated by the spread of COVID-19. Myanmar at first seemed somewhat insulated from it and attempted self-isolation. This did not succeed and the virus is spreading, closing many factories, reducing exports and restricting tourism. It may have an impact on where voting takes place. The pandemic will also limit media coverage of the campaign. Foreign observers — present and prominent in 2015 — will not be allowed this time. To date, the elections are due to proceed as scheduled.
Under the 2008 constitution, the military retain their pervasive influence and can veto constitutional revisions that would diminish their power and interests. Despite this, the NLD’s choice to shift the administrative structure of the state from the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs to the office of the State Counsellor — an office headed by Aung San Suu Kyi — has potential, though yet unrealised, to increase civilian authority.
Ethnic violence has intensified in the north, but most significantly among the Rakhine Buddhist Arakan Army which envisions an autonomous federal structure in that region. Once an independent kingdom, Arakan was only conquered by the Burmese in 1785, and its identity is distinct.
Responsibility for the lack of progress must be shared. The military designed a system that manacles civilian authority under the constitution it mandated. This will not likely succeed long term, especially as social mobility becomes more pronounced. But the NLD has not sought progressive changes and has not assuaged tatmadaw suspicions. Ethnic groups cannot agree on anything more than vague demands for federalism. Power remains highly personal and concentrated in the hands of individual leaders, both military and civilian, retarding democratic consolidation and weakening institutions.
One may be — as diplomats are wont to say — cautiously optimistic that the procedural aspects of the 2020 elections will be fair, as the population demands. Reluctantly, there’s cause for pessimism about the near-term prospects for Myanmar’s democracy, as the country grapples with clashing military and ethnic demands.
David I Steinberg is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.