BANGKOK – Yangon residents have been holed up at home in the run-up to Myanmar’s Nov 8 general election because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many were hooked on social media which was awash in red. The ruling National League for Democracy’s (NLD) red fighting peacock flag is flying on everything from Facebook and cars to boats and bullock carts.
A recent campaign procession in the Mandalay region involved youth dancing atop trucks, horses decked out with the party logo, and elephants hauling a giant portrait of party leader and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
It looked more like a victory parade.
Widely expected to triumph again, the NLD has not changed its winning formula which largely leans on the charisma and influence of 75-year-old Ms Suu Kyi. Its 2020 election manifesto is light on specifics and heavy with broad promises towards peace, sustainable development, and a genuine federal democracy.
Perhaps more revealing were Ms Suu Kyi’s comments as she unveiled the party’s slate of candidates in July. “The road that the NLD has taken is very rough. It is long, unending. The harshness is not over,” she was quoted by Frontier Myanmar as saying. “That is why we place so much emphasis on endurance and loyalty.”
The NLD will be counting on voter loyalty in this election, given its lacklustre first-term performance, wrestling with a diarchy fashioned by the country’s former military rulers.
In 2015, the party won 57 per cent of the popular vote and 79 per cent of the elected seats in the national Lower House, a solid block against the military, which is guaranteed a quarter of all Parliament seats, as well as control of the defence, border affairs and home affairs ministries.
Party spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said the government was able to improve transparency during its first term.
“There was a good rule of law during NLD’s term in government. There was transparency,” he said.
“People today dare to speak freely, and they dare to protest too. This is where we have succeeded.”
Supporters say change has been slow but visible. With international aid, some 50 per cent of Myanmar households are now connected to the electricity grid, compared to 35 per cent in 2016.
“My whole family supports the NLD. We know how they sacrificed their lives and the military junta ruined their families and future. But it’s not why I support them,” says Khin Yupar, a 38-year-old company purchaser based in Dawei township in southern Myanmar. “I support them because I see how they changed people’s lives.”
Improved amenities in her hometown have reduced healthcare costs and halved the time it takes for her to travel to Yangon, she says. “You might not notice it in the big cities like Yangon, but in other states and divisions, the NLD government has built much infrastructure like highways, roads and electricity lines to the small villages in these past five years.”
The NLD is trying its best, she says, using a common refrain among supporters. “We just need to be patient. We also should not forget that the power and authority are still with the military junta.”
After an initial policy logjam, the NLD administration dismantled enough business hurdles to help Myanmar climb in the latest World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, to 165 out of 190 economies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shrunk Myanmar’s economic growth forecast this year to 0.5 per cent, compared to 6.8 per cent last year, according to the latest World Bank projections. Yet the country still managed to attract US$5.68 billion (S$7.8 billion) in foreign direct investment by the end of September , just slightly under its target of US$5.8 billion.
Still, despite its relatively bigger say on economic issues, the administration failed to articulate clear policies to rehabilitate an economy left stunted by years of isolation and economic sanctions, notes Ms Ngu Wah Win, a senior policy coordinator for the Centre for Economic and Social Development, who is also a vice-chairman of the opposition People’s Pioneer Party.
“We got a long-term plan called Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan, which is very much donor-driven, to say our policies will be aligned with international Sustainable Development Goals,” she says. “But we do not have domestic policies and strategies for growth, which sectors and industries may drive that growth and how growth can be shared.”
Vicky Bowman, director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, also wants the government to turn some of its broad strokes into clearer vision.
“While the NLD assumed power without previous government experience and undoubtedly had to wrestle with a civil service which has been progressively deskilled, defunded and demoralised over five decades of socialist and military rule, they could have done better to give a clearer and more detailed policy and political vision earlier in their tenure and appoint more energetic and talented ministers with stronger party instincts to lead ministries rather than be led by them,” said the former British ambassador to Myanmar.
“If the NLD are returned to government by the voters, it is widely hoped that there will be some fresher faces with a clearer vision, to re-energise the economy as it recovers from Covid-19.”
On the international front, Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has pushed the country back into pariah status. Over 700,000 of the country’s Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh after a brutal 2017 military crackdown, while some 600,000 continue to live precariously in apartheid-like conditions within Myanmar. Last year, Ms Suu Kyi fronted her country’s defence against allegations of genocide at the International Court of Justice, a move which was decried as an attempt to pander to nationalist sentiments back home.
Myanmar’s other minorities have voiced fears of growing marginalisation. Peace talks to end long running civil wars are making little headway, with one of the most powerful armed groups, the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army, shut out by virtue of the government labelling it a terrorist organisation. Symbolic decisions like the building of statues to honour ethnic Bamar independence hero Aung San – Ms Suu Kyi’s father – have riled local populations.
In September, three ethnic Karen activists were sentenced to 15 days’ jail for holding a peaceful event to commemorate the death of a Karen leader, while at least 14 students nationwide were arrested for taking part in a campaign to demand an end to the war in Rakhine state and the lifting of internet restrictions there.
Then, Myanmar’s election commission in October cancelled voting in the whole or in parts for the majority of townships in Rakhine state – where ethnic-based parties posted the strongest showing in the last election.
In a scathing report in October, policy research and advocacy group Progressive Voice said: “As the ultimate arbiter of power for so many years, the Myanmar military has long benefited from the constructed narratives of hate aimed at advancing Bamar Buddhist dominance at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities in the country. But, more recently, the NLD government has increasingly aligned itself with such rhetoric.”
Instead of addressing the root causes of hate speech and institutionalised discrimination, Progressive Voice alleged that the NLD government had “chosen to exploit popular anti-minority sentiment for political gain”.
With Covid-19 infections climbing at over 1,000 a day and crossing 52,000, an NLD administration will have its hands full after the election.
It will also look like a different party compared to five years ago, having shed outspoken or disillusioned stalwarts and allies who have accused Ms Suu Kyi of micromanaging and suppressing dissent.
But diehards believe she will prevail, just like how she withstood some 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner of the previous military regime.
“People say she is stubborn and doesn’t want to listen to others,” says Khin Yupar. “But, if she is not stubborn, we will still be ruled by the military junta now.”