In Defiance Against the Military, Myanmar Diverges Away from Democracy

“As NLD and its supporters celebrate their election victory, the critical question remains to be seen: how will the NLD honor their commitment to a genuine federal democracy when forming the new government and ensure the inclusion of ethnic voices?”

On Sunday, hopeful voters risked contracting COVID-19 in order to exercise their democratic right to vote in Myanmar’s general elections, which resulted in the National League for Democracy (NLD) securing a majority of seats in parliament, and a resounding number of seats in ethnic areas. This victory was more than initially speculated for the NLD, which some local analysts consider to be a response to the Myanmar military’s criticism towards the NLD-led government.

After decades of military rule, the people of Myanmar, except those staunch military supporters, are all in agreement – not to allow the military and its proxies to win regardless of their differing opinions on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. This 2020 election is further proof of people’s desire to defeat the military. In the days leading up to the election, the Myanmar military sowed the seeds of chaos by issuing two statements criticizing the Union Election Commission (UEC) for “weakness and deficiencies” in the election process and saying the NLD-led government was responsible for the “intentional and unintentional mistakes of the commission.” It seems that after a last minute threat from the military aimed squarely at the NLD and UEC, the election landscape swiftly swayed people, particularly the majority Bamar, to vote for the NLD, without questioning or critiquing the undemocratic practices of the NLD and the untransparent conduct of the UEC. Irrespective of this issue, these elections cannot be characterized as free and fair, with rampant disenfranchisement and exclusion of Rohingya and other ethnic and religious minorities, cancelling of elections without solid justifications and an alternative plan, and intrusion of the Myanmar military into politics and the electoral process, with some reporting of alleged fraud and irregularities on the election day.

“Mass voter disenfranchisement due to systemic racism and conflict-related displacement will become the hallmark of this election,”

Nang Zun Moe, executive director of Progressive Voice

Back in 2015, high hopes were held after NLD’s landslide victory that Myanmar would transition to a fully-fledged federal democracy that reflected the will of the people and the diversity of ethnic groups, but these hopes were swiftly dashed. During its term, the NLD-led government failed to meet its own pledges, starting with constitutional reform and a national reconciliation plan to creating a rule of law democracy. Democratic space was further clamped down with freedom of expression and assembly curtailed more so than under the military proxy, USDP-led government. Most worrying is that the NLD-led government has aligned itself with the Myanmar military, shielding them from accountability for gross human rights violations and aided them in perpetuating bigoted laws and policies, particularly against Rohingya. Prior to the elections, Progressive Voice released a briefing paper titled “A Vote with No Confidence: Myanmar’s 2020 General Elections and Rights of Ethnic and Religious Minorities,” highlighting how this election solidifies Myanmar’s divergence away from democracy. Upon the release of the briefing paper, Nang Zun Moe, Executive Director of Progressive Voice had stated, “Mass voter disenfranchisement due to systemic racism and conflict-related displacement will become the hallmark of this election.”

In Rakhine State, election day was marred by ongoing conflict, COVID-19 and systemic and continued disenfranchisement of Rohingya and other ethnic communities, which was reflected in the poor voter turnout in Sittwe and Ann Townships. Additionally, all Rohingya applying for candidacy were rejected and over one million Rohingya living in refugee camps in Bangladesh were unable to vote. Commenting on the mass disenfranchisement, the Democracy and Human Rights Party released a statement saying these elections are “proof of obvious discrimination, suppression, and apartheid in nature” calling on the next government to abolish discriminatory laws against Rohingya, such as the 1982 Citizenship Law.

Notably, an estimated 1.2 million people, which is nearly three quarters of Rakhine’s registered voters, were unable to vote due to cancelled elections in Rakhine State alone, without postponed dates or other means of voting proposed. By-elections will need to be held at the earliest possibility, with necessary security measures in place, so that ethnic communities can have their voices heard on the political stage. This is crucial given the state of prolonged Burman-dominated politics, which has created further division and fractions among the people of diverse communities in Myanmar. Besides Rakhine State, cancellations occurred in Bago Region, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Chin and Shan States, with general insecurity in ethnic areas due to COVID-19 and concerns about landmines have deterred voters from travelling to polling stations.

It is the responsibility of the government to ensure a safe environment for elections to be conducted, and international standards require that every citizen of voting age has the right to vote, on a universal and equal basis. International legal norms and standards also require a free press to report on the election and independent election monitoring, such as monitoring conducted in the 2015 elections by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE). Journalists were not classified ‘essential workers’ by the Myanmar government and PACE was initially denied observation status for ostensibly receiving international donor funds and not being registered. After an outcry from civil society, PACE was allowed restricted access for election monitoring, but this will affect public knowledge on voter education and electoral transparency.

“Now with these cancellations, our voice has been killed. The cancellations will lead to distrust and disappointment in party politics among our people.”

Ma Nyo, Mro National Democracy Party

For other religious and ethnic minorities in Rakhine State, such as Mro, Thet, Daingnet, Khami, Maramagyi, and Kaman, conflict has ensured their voices will not be heard due to cancelled voting. In an interview with the Myanmar Now, Ma Nyo of the Mro National Democracy Party stated he believed that “Now with these cancellations, our voice has been killed. The cancellations will lead to distrust and disappointment in party politics among our people.” Thus, without representation or being able to advocate for their rights, these minority communities will continue to suffer in dire humanitarian conditions in Rakhine State.

As these grievances languish, Myanmar’s desperately needed national reconciliation and peace will become further distant. On election day, some ethnic communities were unable to vote for their ethnic affairs ministers, such as Rakhine voters in Yangon. Similarly in Mandalay, Shan and Kachin voters were not given the correct ballots and in Taunggyi voters were denied the opportunity to vote for ethnic affairs minister due to polling station officers disputing voter’s ethnic identity based on the ethnicity listed on the voter’s ID card. Ethnic ministerial positions are integral in relaying ethnic perspectives and policy decisions to parliament in the upcoming five years.

Among ethnic groups there has been a discernible shift away from engaging in the voting process given the impediments to voting, with many feeling that voting is analogous to legitimizing and accepting entrenched racism and the flawed military-drafted 2008 Constitution. For those barred from voting or in solidarity for those disenfranchised, many have dipped their fingers in white lime and posted pictures on social media as part of a ‘can’t vote’ campaign. Conversely, other ethnic voices have continued to engage in the election process, believing it is better to be represented in parliament and attempt to move politics towards ethnic communities’ concerns. For the vast majority of ethnic communities, daily challenges, disillusionment with a government who has failed them and a lack of voter education surrounding the election has separated them from the national political agenda and discussion – giving them little incentive to vote. Compounding this is the COVID-19 restrictions on ethnic parties’ ability to campaign, which is in contrast to the NLD who canvassed voters and held events in breach of their own COVID-19 restrictions across the country.

As NLD and its supporters celebrate their election victory, the critical question remains to be seen: how will the NLD honor their commitment to a genuine federal democracy when forming the new government and ensure the inclusion of ethnic voices? NLD must uphold its pledge and formulate a definitive plan to absolutely repudiate the 2008 Constitution and reform laws to give full citizenship and suffrage to Rohingya and other disenfranchised ethnic and religious communities. As a precondition for a full-fledged and robust transition towards peace and federal democracy, the new government must ensure that the Myanmar military comes under civilian control and relinquishes its hold within the political system. Under the 2008 Constitution, the military allotted themselves 25% of the seats in both houses of parliament, divisional and regional parliaments, one vice presidential post and crucial Ministries of Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs to be headed by military personnel, while ensuring their former military comrades hold key positions in government. With such a firm grip of the military within government, Myanmar has a long way to achieve representative democracy.

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[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.


Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

2020 Elections in Myanmar is Undemocratic without Rohingyas

By Arakan Rohingya National Organisation

APPG on Democracy in Burma Statement on Upcoming Elections in Burma

By All-Party Parliamentary Group

Aung San Suu Kyi Keeps 229 Political Prisoners in Jail on eve of Burma Election

By Burma Campaign UK

International Acceptance of Rohingya Disenfranchisement Encourages Further Abuses

By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK

An Apartheid Election Less Free and Fair Than the Last

By Burma Campaign UK

BHRN Launches New Report on Discrimination and Hate Speech in Burma’s Election Campaign

By Burma Human Rights Network

Illegitimate internet shutdown extended beyond elections

By Free Expression Myanmar, Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Myanmar ICT for Development Organization and Phandeeyar

ဥပဒေနှင့်ဆန်ကျင်သည့် အင်တာနက်ဖြစ်တောက်မှုအား ရွေးကောက်ပွဲအလွန်ကာလသို့ ထပ်မံသက်တမ်းတိုးသည့်အပေါ် ပူးတွဲသဘောထားထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Free Expression Myanmar, Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Myanmar ICT for Development Organization and Phandeeyar

၂၀၂၀ ခုနှစ် အထွေထွေရွေးကောက်ပွဲအပေါ် ထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Karen Human Rights Group

Statement on the 2020 Myanmar Election

By Karen Human Rights Group

New Briefing Paper, Dismissed & Denied: Civic Rights Undermined In the 2020 Pre-Election Landscape by the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma Shows Disregard of Political and Civic Rights by Election Stakeholders

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

နိုင်ငံသားနှင့် နိုင်ငံရေးအခွင့်အရေး လျစ်လျူရှုခံရသည်ကို ဖော်ပြထားသည့် “ပစ်ပယ်ခြင်းနှင့် ငြင်းဆို ခြင်း။ ၂၀၂၀ ရွေးကောက်ပွဲမတိုင်မီ အခင်းအကျင်းတွင် နိုင်ငံသားအခွင့်အရေး ယုတ်လျော့စေမှု” စာတန်းငယ်ကို ND-Burma မှပြုစု ထုတ်ပြန်လိုက်သည်။

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

UN Expert Calls on Myanmar to Stop Curtailing Democratic Rights in Run-up to General Election

By Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

reports

Reports

Human Rights Violations by Myanmar Armed Force in Rakhine State and Northern Shan State, in 2020

By Arakan Humanitarian Coordination Team, Arakan Human Rights Defenders And Promoters Association, Arakan CSOs Network, Human Rights Action Network and United Rights Group

Myanmar’s 2020 Elections: Unfair, Un-Free, and Anti-Democratic

By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, Arakan Rohingya National Organisation and Independent Diplomat

Burma’s 2020 Election. A Step Forward or a Step Back?

By Burma Campaign UK

Pervasive Hate Speech and the Role of Facebook in Myanmar

By FORUM-ASIA and Athan

Dismissed & Denied: Civic Rights Undermined In the 2020 Pre-Election Landscape

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

ပစ်ပယ်ခြင်းနှင့် ငြင်းဆိုခြင်း – ၂၀၂၀ ရွေးကောက်ပွဲမတိုင်မီ အခင်းအကျင်းတွင် နိုင်ငံသားအခွင့်အရေး ယုတ်လျော့စေမှု

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

ရွေးကောက်ပွဲနှင့် ရခိုင်တို့မြေ သုတေသနအစီရင်ခံစာ

By Nyan Lynn Thit Analytica

The Arakan Army in Myanmar: Deadly Conflict Rises in Rakhine State

By United States Institute of Peace


Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”

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