Myanmar Sets a Date for Its Historic, if Flawed, Election

It won’t be the truly open democratic process some had hoped for, but the election once hailed as Myanmar’s potential return to full-fledged democracy now has an exact date: Nov. 8.

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It won’t be the truly open democratic process some had hoped for, but the election once hailed as Myanmar’s potential return to full-fledged democracy now has an exact date: Nov. 8.

The country, also known as Burma, has long said it would hold a vote this fall, in the first real, multiparty general election to be -- hopefully -- honored by the government in more than half a century. But before Wednesday’s official announcement of a date, political uncertainties over flagging reforms and ethnic conflict had caused some doubts -- especially after a statement last fall by President Thein Sein about the need to solidify a cease-fire with ethnic minority rebel groups before citizens could vote.

Hillary Clinton still cites Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship, a transition that started in 2011, as one of her greatest diplomatic achievements as U.S. secretary of state. Since 2012, though, Myanmar’s reforms have stalled. The parliament voted in June to keep the military's effective veto power over constitutional amendments, along with a provision that bars iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president because of the foreign citizenship of her late British husband and their sons.

It won’t be the truly open democratic process some had hoped for, but the election once hailed as Myanmar’s potential return to full-fledged democracy now has an exact date: Nov. 8.

The country, also known as Burma, has long said it would hold a vote this fall, in the first real, multiparty general election to be — hopefully — honored by the government in more than half a century. But before Wednesday’s official announcement of a date, political uncertainties over flagging reforms and ethnic conflict had caused some doubts — especially after a statement last fall by President Thein Sein about the need to solidify a cease-fire with ethnic minority rebel groups before citizens could vote.

Hillary Clinton still cites Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship, a transition that started in 2011, as one of her greatest diplomatic achievements as U.S. secretary of state. Since 2012, though, Myanmar’s reforms have stalled. The parliament voted in June to keep the military’s effective veto power over constitutional amendments, along with a provision that bars iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president because of the foreign citizenship of her late British husband and their sons.

Meanwhile, Buddhist mob violence against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority group has exploded since 2012, and the government has stripped Rohingyas of voting rights in the upcoming election. Opposition leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi have remained largely silent about the group’s plight. Just on Tuesday, the parliament passed a bill fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment that requires any Buddhist woman to submit plans to marry outside her religion for review — and possible cancellation — by local government officials.

Myanmar last staged open, multiparty general elections in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party won a majority, but the military refused to honor the outcome. The opposition is expected to do quite well in the new elections too, making gains against the military-dominated ruling party and maybe even winning a majority. But whoever wins this vote, it’s going to be something less than a big win for democracy.

Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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