Will elections on November 8 mark a watershed moment for Myanmar’s transition toward democracy?
For the last six decades, Myanmar’s political history—like its neighbor, Thailand—has been volatile and authoritarian at best. It has largely existed as a one-party, military-led state since 1962, when General Ne Win led a military coup that saw the abolishment of the federal system and the inauguration of “the Burmese way to socialism.”
Myanmar’s last three elections were not free and fair. They only allowed for limited participation, and they were clearly orchestrated to prevent power from being transferred from the military to civilian hands.
The 1990 elections saw the junta refusing to acknowledge the landslide victory achieved by Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the subsequent exclusion of the NLD in the 2010 elections.
The 2015 elections, however, are shaping up to be different compared to earlier attempts to move toward a period of transparent democratic politics. Campaigning across the country has never been more vibrant, and local businesses have caught on the election hype and interest. Over 10,000 local and international election monitors, diplomats and journalists have registered with the Union Election Commission to observe the vote and ensure that elections unfold in a free and fair manner.
More importantly, this round of elections has been the most inclusive and pluralistic, with two-thirds of the 92 registered political parties representing ethnic or religious minorities.
The issue of ethnic representation is more prevalent than ever due to events earlier this year. In February, clashes between Kokang separatists and the military in Shan state left nearly 50 soldiers dead, and in June, thousands of Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their voting rights in Rakhine state.
On November 8, 644 seats will be contested across 14 administrative regions—consisting of seven regions that are ethnically Burmese, as well as seven states that have higher proportions of minority ethnic populations.
As shown by the Myanmar government’s violent episodes and campaigns to marginalize the country’s minorities, the difference in ethnic composition has important implications on electoral results, as ethnicity is highly political and deeply ingrained in the political infrastructure of the country.
The main battle-lines will be drawn between the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—formed in 2010, and a successor of the military-created Union Solidarity and Development Association—and the NLD.
President Thein Sein’s main opponent will not be Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who is constitutionally barred from becoming president. Instead, it will be former USDP Chairman Thura Shwe Mann, who was ousted from power a mere three months ago. There is speculation that Shwee Mann will collaborate with Suu Kyi to push for genuine political reforms and constitutional amendments.
Given the inter-religious and inter-communal tensions that have plagued the country despite it “mysteriously” opening up in 2011, things on the ground are more nuanced and complicated.
As of October, the number of areas deemed “unfit” for elections remains sizeable. Voting has being cancelled in nearly 600 village tracts, mostly in the Kachin and Shan states. The UEC has cited that the “lack of security” in these villages endangers the quality of voting. The commission did not provide an exact figure on the total number of voters that will be excluded from voting, but it is estimated that millions will not have the opportunity to vote.
“Strong Evidence” of Genocide in Myanmar
Despite the overwhelming number of ethnic parties participating in these elections, the playing field is fundamentally not a leveled one. Although Muslims make up 5% of the country’s 51 million residents, nearly all Muslim candidates have been disqualified by the UEC based on weak grounds; they have even been dropped by the NLD.
Final voting lists have still not been confirmed, and the large number of external election observers does not guarantee that mass-rigging of votes will not occur. Thousands of “advance votes” by soldiers and civil servants have already been cast, and hundreds of thousands of Myanmar citizens living beyond capitals in other countries such as Thailand have also been left out of voting.
To top it off, recent reports purporting “strong evidence” of genocide against Rohingya Muslims has just about overshadowed the elections.
The reports of mass killings and explicit exclusion of the Rohingya, however, should not divert attention away from the underlying anti-Muslim sentiment that exists within Myanmar. While international investigations should be encouraged to look into these allegations further, boycotting the regime at such an important juncture of the country’s political development will only lead to more tension and political incoherence.
There is much at stake in this round of elections, and it can only be hoped that one step of progress will be made for millions of Burmese who will be voting for the first time. It is up to the people of Myanmar to hold their candidates accountable for the promises they have made after months of campaigning.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.