Myanmar has had an arduous journey towards becoming a fully democratic country. The military force currently still holds a 25% influence in the country’s parliament. 5 years have passed since the 2015 National Election -a historical landmark, where the National League of Democracy (NLD) defeated the 50-year strong military government — the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD is led by Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won by a landslide: 390 out of 498 contested seats.
However, the world’s perception towards Aung San Suu Kyi has recently taken a drastic turn, from being portrayed to be a democracy and human rights icon, to now a defender of genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi is now in a position where she is having to justify the actions of the same military government that placed her under house arrest in front of the International Court of Justice. Despite the tumult of chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and Rohingya conflicts, Myanmar still decided to hold its widely anticipated national election. Many disputed whether this was the right decision by the UEC given the current circumstances. Although a number of neighbouring countries also followed through with their election in this pandemic, Myanmar’s election was said to be influenced by the fact that even whilst in the early stages, the NLD was always projected to win as observed by the public’s cult-like admiration towards Aung San Suu Kyi. Hence, receiving a major green light from the government to proceed.
A Brief History of Myanmar’s Politics
In 1988, a pro-democracy protest -8888 Uprising- broke out in Myanmar; this protest was a direct consequence of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) leader, General Ne Win’s resignation, he had ruled the country under a military regime for many years. His resignation subsequently led to Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise in prominence, who was believed by many to be a suitable leader to release the country from military oppression. Aung San Suu Kyi alongside previous senior army officials who disfavoured BSPP’s way of ruling founded a new political party known as the National League of Democracy (NLD) on the 27th of September 1988 where she served as the first General Secretary. The NLD advocated for democracy, free speech, and human rights until their efforts came to a halt when the Burmese Armed Forces led by Saw Maung seized the country in a coup, leaving thousands of unarmed protesters killed.
Saw Maung remained in a powerful position as prime minister and chairman of the new military government: the State Law Order Restoration Council (later known as the State Development Peace Council). Orders for the arrest of all NLD members were made effective immediately. On the 27th of May 1990, Myanmar held its first national election. NLD saw a major victory in the election, receiving approximately 60% of the votes from the 72% turnout, securing 392 seats, whilst the military-backed National Unity Party secured 10 mere seats. At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi however, was still detained under house arrest. The SLORC, stunned by the outcome, refused to recognize NLD as the new government. The election result was simply ignored, as indicated through Myanmar’s official annulment of the 1990 election in 2010. In the eyes of the world, Aung San Suu Kyi’s commendable efforts were praised and she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991, which her son Alexander Aris had to accept on her behalf. In 2010, after her release from house arrest, Myanmar held their second national election. NLD boycotted the election, citing the country’s ‘unjust’ electoral laws. Hence, prolonging the USDP’s long reign, which would also be their last after suffering an unprecedented official loss to NLD in the 2015 National Election, marking the beginning of Myanmar’s movement towards democracy.
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?
Almost always, the leader that stands before you today did not have an easy road to accession contrary to popular belief, but one that could be akin to a roller coaster ride. Beyond her impressive democracy fighter-like facade, Aung San Suu Kyi has had her voice and party continuously shunned by the military government for over 15 years whilst serving her house arrest sentence. Born on 19 June 1945, Aung San Suu Kyi, fondly known nationwide as The Lady or Daw (mother) Suu, is a Nobel laureate, politician, diplomat, and the daughter of Burmese independence figure Aung San. She received her higher education in India and is an alumnus of the prestigious University of Oxford. Married to British historian Michael Aris, she birthed 2 sons Alexander and Kim Aris; she lived a relatively quiet life in the United Kingdom before returning to her home country Myanmar in 1988 to take care of her sick mother.
Under the military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi was perceived as a threat to Myanmar’s government as she advocated for democracy. Due to this, she was set to spend over 15 years of her life under house arrest in Yangon separated from her family abroad. Had she chosen to join her family in the UK, she would not be allowed by law to return to Myanmar again. During her time in house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi had to adhere to strict terms including being disallowed of visitors without permission and having her phone line cut off among many others. According to the law that had her indicted, she was finally set for release in 2010.
A Guide to Myanmar’s Electoral System
How does Myanmar’s electoral system work? To keep it simple, Myanmar follows a first-past-the-post voting system (FPTP) where members are elected from single-member constituencies. Essentially, voters can only choose one desired candidate and the candidate obtaining the majority votes in his/her constituency wins. Myanmar’s parliament consists of two Hluttaw (assemblies): the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) or upper house with 224 seats and Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives) or lower house with 440 seats. Together, they form the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (legislature). The State and Region Hluttaw is elected based on townships which consist of 330. For each township, it is then divided into two constituencies, making it a total of 660 seats. The Ethnic Affairs Ministers will consist of 29 seats. During an election, voters will have the opportunity to vote in 75% of the parliament whereas the remainder 25% is chosen by the military as according to the 2008 Constitution passed by the previous military government. This meant that 166 parliament seats will automatically be reserved for the military. Thus, strategically preventing Myanmar from becoming a fully democratic country.
Through this constitution, the military is allowed to exercise power over the country in the state of “emergencies”. According to Article 232 of the constitution, only the Commander in Chief of the military has the authority to appoint the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs — placing the country’s defence and securities matters fully within the military’s governs. Myanmar’s President is also appointed by the members of Parliament through the Presidential Electoral College and not by the general public. Article 59 of the constitution states that in order to become President, one’s self, spouse, legitimate children and their spouses “must not owe allegiance to any foreign power”. Essentially, this meant that none of them can be subjected to any foreign citizenship — immediately barring Aung San Suu Kyi whose late spouse was a British citizen and has children of British citizenships, from ever becoming President of Myanmar. She also failed to meet the criteria of Article 57 which states that the President must “be acquainted with the affairs of the union” which includes military experience among many others. Consequently, Aung San Suu Kyi is given the title as Myanmar’s State Counsellor and is considered as the de facto head of government whereas the President is the de jure head of government. Despite this, Aung San Suu Kyi claimed that she will be “above the President and that there was nothing in the constitution that prevented this.”
A Flawed National Election
On 1 July 2020, the United Elections Committee (UEC) announced that Myanmar is set to have its National Election on 8 November 2020, with a total of 1171 contested seats. However, on 16 October 2020, the UEC issued a statement stating that a significant part of Rakhine state and other conflict-hit states such as Shan and Kachin will not be participating in the voting. These affected states were said to potentially pose a high-security risk due to the ongoing political unrest between the military and the Arakan army. Although the state is populated largely by Rakhine Buddhists, they are now disenfranchised to vote. Approximately 1.5 million people were affected which includes other ethnic groups such as Rakhine, Shan, Kachin and Karen. This caused major outrage by the country’s minority who feels heavily excluded and sidelined from the election. Their inability to exercise their rights on having a say in the country’s future is further exacerbated.
The Rohingyas on the other hand; is a Muslim minority ethnic group in Rakhine state, who are recognised as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by the government and hence was also denied of voting rights (this includes automatic disqualification to run as well). In fact, at least 6 Rohingya politicians including rising politician Abdul Rasheed; who are one of the few Rohingyas with Myanmar citizenship were disqualified from running in the election this year. AlJazeera reported the justifications given by the government; which was that all of them failed to provide evidence of their parents’ citizenship at the time of their birth, a requirement according to the election law. In addition, 3G and 4G internet services in Rakhine were cut off by the government; preventing information regarding the election and vote to circulate among the state locals. The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), an independent domestic election observer group based in Yangon was subsequently banned from observing votes by the government for reportedly receiving assistance from international organizations without being officially registered. Another measure the government put in place was to classify journalism as “non-essential” yet the two pro-state newspaper outlets remained in operation whereas independent outlets were not.
Due to all the irregularity elements surrounding this election, Human Rights Watch believed that the 2020 election would be ‘fundamentally flawed’ and unfair. This left many wondering why NLD, a pro-democracy party is skewing the country towards the opposite direction.
The National League of Democracy wins the 2020 National Election!
Despite the criticisms and surge of COVID-19 cases exceeding an average of 1100 cases daily, approximately 37 million eligible voters including 5 million first-timers recorded a turnout of more than 70%. In Myanmar, voting in an election is not mandatory and is on a voluntary basis. To win the election, a total of 322 seats must be secured for both houses to form a government. Results revealed that the NLD exceeded the requirement by winning 396 parliament seats out of the 476 seats, beating their record of 390 seats in the 2015 election. Hence, this effectively makes Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD the confirmed winner of this 2020 national election. Marking their triumphant return as Myanmar’s ruling government. The USDP however, managed to secure a mere 33 seats. Unsatisfied with the result, the USDP demanded that the UEC hold a rerun of the election with the military’s assistance, claiming that the election was unfair and heavily biased in favour of the NLD. However, all the other parties had accepted the results and the UEC confirmed that there will be no re-election.
Set to serve the country for a second term, Aung San Suu Kyi pledges in her manifesto to address ethnic affairs and achieve internal peace; push towards amending the constitution in ensuring that Myanmar emerges as a fully democratic country; and accelerating sustainable development. There is, however, still a lot of ambiguity surrounding the future of Myanmar and whether it has and will emerge as a truly democratic country, the disparities in opinions will ultimately depend upon what benchmarks you judge democracy by. Whether Myanmar has lived up to those benchmarks or has had its inherent flaws exposed, ultimately depends on your definition of democracy.