Myanmar’s Elections Won’t Be Free or Fair

Five years after the National League for Democracy won in a landslide, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party fails to live up to its name.

By Andrew Nachemson, a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
Supporters of the National League for Democracy party in Myanmar
Supporters of the National League for Democracy party take part in a campaign rally with a cut-out portrait of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar on Oct. 25. YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 16, Myanmar’s election commission canceled upcoming elections in nine of 17 townships in conflict-torn Rakhine state. Many of the unaffected townships are held by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), and the move tilts the electoral playing field in the party’s favor in the state where it needs it the most. On top of other violations of democratic norms, the decision further undermines the credibility of an election that the NLD was always going to win. The party of the civilian leader and onetime democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, which came to power in 2015, still retains broad support elsewhere in Myanmar.

But weeks ahead of the national vote on Nov. 8, the NLD government has excluded the Rohingya Muslim minority from voting or standing for election, censored rival political parties and critical websites, and obstructed Myanmar’s biggest election monitor. A new surge of COVID-19 in Myanmar has compounded these obstacles, restricting campaigning across the country—but particularly in Rakhine state and Yangon, the largest city—and leading the major opposition parties to request a delay to no avail. Yet despite the assault on democracy by the party that once represented it, Western countries have been almost completely silent.

After the NLD won in a landslide five years ago, many observers anticipated a liberal shift in Myanmar after decades of military rule. But today political apathy dominates: A preelection survey by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) found that only 30 percent of respondents were interested in politics, a major decline from 58 percent in 2016. And as the NLD prepares to defend its majority at the polls, the party is largely failing to live up to its name. The elections look certain to fall short of democratic standards.

The NLD enjoys widespread popularity among the Bamar ethnic majority and would most likely win a free and fair election. But rather than take the risk, it has undermined democracy in Myanmar, pursuing policies that resemble those of the military government that it fought for decades. The political playing field still isn’t level—with the military automatically retaining control over 25 percent of seats in parliament and controlling key institutions, such as the police—so the NLD may see itself as violating democratic rights to uphold democracy as part of an ongoing political transition.

Normally, there would be international condemnation over these violations—in fact, the European Union condemned similar policies ahead of the 2015 election overseen by a military-aligned party—but countries that might normally speak out are now turning a blind eye to the NLD’s practices.

The NLD’s most egregious violation of democratic norms is the exclusion of the Rohingya. The 2017 military campaign against the minority in Rakhine state, called a genocide by the United Nations and others, sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh. Those who remain in Myanmar mostly live in camps described as open-air prisons, and they have been largely denied the right to vote or stand for election for failing to meet citizenship requirements that critics say are racist and arbitrary.

To some Western observers, this exclusion is merely a blemish on Myanmar’s otherwise encouraging democratic transition. In a toothless joint statement, a group of eight countries including the United States and the United Kingdom called for the inclusion of Rohingya in the elections, while failing to take any specific action.

Excluding the Rohingya is a symptom of the NLD’s broader reluctance to uphold democratic values.

Excluding the Rohingya is a symptom of the NLD’s broader reluctance to uphold democratic values. Kyaw Min, a Rohingya politician whose candidacy was rejected by the Union Election Commission that was appointed by the NLD government, says the laws that govern eligibility are the same today as they were 30 years ago. He accused the current government of imitating the military in its own quest to maintain power.

“We are not foreigners, our parents are not foreigners, we have been here for many, many generations,” Kyaw Min told me, adding that the NLD politicians “don’t understand what democracy and human rights are—they are just trying to get power from the military.”

The NLD has either supported or remained silent on other violations of democratic norms. At least nine parties—all ethnic minority parties or minor pro-democracy parties—have complained of election commission censorship of their platforms on state media. The Rakhine-based Arakan National Party, the third-largest party in parliament, said the commission forced it to remove criticism of the 2008 constitution and a comment about election apathy in Rakhine. The government has blocked hundreds of websites for allegedly spreading “fake news,” including credible media outlets and the site of an activist group that exposes military corruption.

Across the country, activists have been arrested for protesting the military campaign against the Arakan Army in Rakhine. The Arakan National Party won resoundingly in Rakhine in 2015, but local success did not significantly increase its political power at the national level, eroding faith in electoral politics and encouraging the rise of the separatist Arakan Army. Earlier this year, the NLD voted down a proposal to allow state and regional legislatures to select their own chief ministers, which would be an important step toward long-promised federalist reform.

The Union Election Commission initially blocked PACE, the country’s largest election monitor, from observing the vote because it receives foreign funding. The move provoked widespread outcry given that most foreign observers, including the U.S.-based Carter Center and the European Union, will be severely limited in Myanmar by COVID-19 restrictions. The commission eventually relented, but the delay prevented PACE from observing the public posting of voter lists, which have come under criticism for rampant errors, including incorrect names and the inclusion of deceased citizens.

In July, a “no vote” campaign emerged, spearheaded by activists disillusioned with the NLD who argued that a legitimate election was impossible under the military-drafted constitution. The campaign rankled NLD leadership and was amplified by more prominent activist organizations, such as the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. Though NLD politicians famously boycotted the 2010 military-organized election, its officials slammed the “no vote” campaign as an insult to the historical fight for democracy. The NLD and Union Election Commission threatened the boycotters with arrest, dampening the movement.

The NLD’s intolerance for dissent sends a threatening message that it is the sole guardian of democracy, and that anyone who opposes the NLD must therefore oppose democracy. In the face of these restrictions on free expression, Western countries have generally remained silent. Thomas Andrews, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, is one of the few prominent diplomats to criticize the recent censorship. “Information is the heartbeat of a free and fair election,” Andrews said at a Human Rights Council meeting in September, adding the election “will fail to meet this standard.”

The NLD’s intolerance for dissent sends a threatening message that it is the sole guardian of democracy.

An EU representative in Myanmar told Foreign Policy it is taking a “balanced” approach by supporting the democratic transition “while advocating accountability.” While condemning the “systematic discrimination” against the Rohingya, the representative said the EU would “continue to support [Myanmar’s] electoral process”—and did not answer questions about whether these issues undermined the legitimacy of the election.

Perhaps many Western countries are holding their tongues because the military still poses a greater threat to Myanmar’s democratic transition. The military and its aligned party have already vetoed an amendment to remove unelected military legislators from the parliament. Some may fairly point out that Myanmar’s nascent democracy requires patience, but authoritarian regimes often invoke this excuse. In nearby Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen is still asking for patience for its democratic transition as he approaches 36 years in power.

While the NLD’s victory is a forgone conclusion, democracy is as much about the process as it is about the result—and the NLD has so far shown little respect for that process. In Rakhine, the Rohingya don’t have time to wait and see how it all shakes out. Every election held without their participation further entrenches their status as outsiders.

Andrew Nachemson is a journalist covering politics, human rights, and Chinese development in Southeast Asia.
 Twitter: @ANachemson