It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it…
————–Aung San Suu Kyi, January 1, 1990
A general election will take place in Myanmar for the union, state and region legislative in the next year, 2020. The previous election held in November 2015 was the first well-administered multi-party election after a long period of direct military rule. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory with an overwhelming majority in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, defeating the military associated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) clearly in the polls. USDP remains the second largest party in the parliament having collected over 28 percent votes countrywide. This military backed party won just five percent of the seats in the upper house and seven percent of the seats in the lower house; the party also picked up several seats in the 2017 and 2018 by elections, gaining five new seats. This time, military backed USDP is preparing seriously to make a good comeback in the 2020 elections.
Myanmar is a unitary state with parliamentary presidential system. The president is elected by the members of parliament, not by the general population. The Presidential Electoral College, a three committee body, elects the president. Each of the three committees, made up of Amyotha Hluttaw, Pyithu Hluttaw members of parliament, or military-appointed lawmakers, nominates a candidate for presidency. All elections are regulated by the Union Election Commission (UEC). According to 2008 constitution, the term durations of the legislature, the President, and the Cabinet are five years.
Myanmar was always in a point of discussion in the recent years. Massive foreign investment, remarkable progress in the economy, mass Rohingya exodus and countering number of insurgency groups were the issues measured to be a situation changer for Myanmar. Considering all the relevant issues, the upcoming general election, scheduled to be held in late 2020, is very important. Besides NLD and USDP, there will be number of ethnicity based political parties to participate in the upcoming election. However, many ethnic parties decided to merge, after performing relatively poor result in 2015 elections.
The general peoples’ perception of gradual progress of workable democracy is creating the nation more aware. Gender discrimination has been common across all the postcolonial governments and elections in Myanmar. There were hardy any women rights during the long military rule since 1962 to 2011; the military itself has had no women in the leadership roles. Some kind of reforms were initiated in 2011 that created openings for women, a trend that appeared to gain some momentum when the percentage of women parliamentarians at the national level increased from 6 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2015. In 2020 election, this state might be higher than before.
Though there are improvements of the situation, still Myanmar is home to a complex conflict environment with a perplexing display of armed anti-state forces as well as loosely organized, disappointed citizens who enjoys hardly any compensation through legal or political channels. A credible election with an aspiration of democratic rights is a long waiting expectation of the general people. The upcoming election result and future state of democracy in Myanmar concerns Bangladesh to some extent. The safe return of Rohingya community might become an important factor considering the level of bilateral cooperation of the future government of Myanmar.
Electoral Process in Myanmar as per the Constitution
2020 election will be the third general election being held under the terms of the 2008 constitution. Few changes have been made to the formal electoral legal framework since the 2015 election, which ensured the electorate vote overwhelmingly to transferring power to the NLD. The 2008 constitution provides the framework for elections in Myanmar, which is supplemented by a series of laws and by-laws about the political parties, UEC and electoral process at the different levels of government. As per the constitution, the cast of vote will be conducted in all constituencies, except the seats to be appointed by the military. Ethnic Affairs Ministers are also elected by their designated electorates on the same day.
In House of Nationalities, out of 224 seats 168 seats are contested for election. The remaining 56 seats (25%) are not elected; those are reserved for military appointees, officially known as “Defense Services Personnel Representatives”. The people of each state/region elect 12 members including one member from each self-administered zone. In House of Representatives, out of 440 seats, 330 seats are elected. The remaining 110 seats (25%) are kept reserved for the military appointees. Members are elected to the constituencies basing on the respective township and population.
Myanmar’s electoral history favors large parties at the expense of smaller ones and independent candidates, diminishing the prospect that elections might de-escalate conflict. Myanmar is not in a post conflict setting; rather it is a home to ongoing, organized, armed anti-state violence and inter-communal tensions. National-level political power has historically been in the hands of small elite groups of Buddhist, lowlander, ethnic Bamar community based military officers and their inner circle of commercial allies, to the disadvantages of rest of the population.
According to the present constitution of Myanmar, the election is supposed to be held each after five years and the next election is scheduled in 2020. But the timing of the peace negotiations is neither constitutionally mandated nor likely to proceed in a linear fashion. The timing of refugee repatriation is subject to domestic, international, political and legal maneuvering. Considering the fact, the issue of Rohingya repatriation at any scale and its political significance in Rakhine or Myanmar has become a matter of discussion. Meanwhile, anti-Bamar sentiments in Rakhine are on the rise.
Factors Affecting the Election Result
The 2020 election may strike with two highly contested processes in ways that only extend social tensions in Myanmar. A 2018 survey by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, a domestic observer group, found that only 18 percent of those sampled thought that most people can be trusted; 77 percent believed that they needed to be very careful in dealing with people. Political reforms, initiated in 2011, still remain promising, tentative in some areas and somehow floating in others as the National League for Democracy (NLD) party has struggled to govern since taking power in 2016.
- Facebook will be a platform for disinformation, hate, and voter suppression as well as a catalyst for possible offline action. Opposition parties will campaign on defense of the nation, race and Buddhism from both foreign influences and Islam.
- Women candidates might become a big factor this time; the percentage of women parliamentarians at the national level increased from 6 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2015. The by-elections in 2017 and 2018 included relatively some more women candidates.
- Communal, religious, and nationalist based violence might become a factor. The given laws that criminalize defamation, the media will find it difficult to cover the election campaign without risking the jail.
- The most controversial aspects of the electoral system involve the voter list procedures and the provisions for advance voting. During the preparations for the 2015 election, the Union Election Commission created the first digitized voter roll, which was derived from records of citizen residence held by the General Administration Department (GAD) and the then Ministry of Immigration and Population (MOIP). Advanced voting falls into one of the three categories: out of constituency but inside the country on Election Day; out-of-constituency residence in another country with government permission; and in-constituency advance voting made necessary by legally prescribed rationales, such as being elderly or infirm, in custody, or in civil service. However, the members of the Defense Services are permitted to cast their ballots via advance voting. It was widely thought that the 2010 election was persuaded when bags of advance votes arrived in some cases late in the evening on the Election Day and brought victory to USDP candidates.
- The 2008 constitution and subsequent election laws require that candidates must have resided in Myanmar for at least ten consecutive years and be born of parents who were both citizens at the time of birth.
- There are as many as five million new youth voters, need to remove the large number of people who have died, accounting for the massive undocumented internal/external migration and handling requests for transfer of votes and advance votes including from the overseas.
- The UEC does not have any budget to update the voter list properly. Despite its criticisms UEC, does not take an effort to increase the budget for ensuring an accurate and inclusive voter list.
- Rapid digital transformation in Myanmar is likely to have an effect on the upcoming election. In 2009, less than 1 percent of the country’s fifty million people had a smartphone or home internet; each of the SIM card was $300 each at that time. Since the political and economic openings began in 2011, there was a liberalization of the telecommunications market; SIM card price dropped to about $1, people started enjoying the rise of connectivity. At present, it is estimated that twenty million people now have internet connectivity. For many in Myanmar, Facebook is their main source of information; even the government departments, officials, businesses, and political leaders mainly communicate on Facebook pages due to non-availability of other form of public communication. The Facebook platform has been used to organize progressive campaigns, such as protests against crackdowns on free speech and assembly. The outcome of social media, specially the Facebook caused violence in Mandalay in July 2014. As of early 2019, Facebook had taken down hundreds of accounts deemed guilty of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” with many linked to the military. On February 5, 2019, it also took down the accounts of four ethnic armed organizations, stating that they represented “dangerous organizations” and therefore violated Facebook’s community standards. So, Facebook might become a major source of information and probably disinformation during 2020 election.
Effect of Insurgent Groups on the Electoral process
The government of Myanmar had to face the challenge of number of insurgent groups since its independence. At present, twenty-one major ethnic armed organizations are operating to replace or reform the state. However, since 2015, ten have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Political parties and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) with the same ethnonyms do not necessarily coordinate, agree or represent the same constituencies. Political parties with ethnic names are not necessarily the representative of ethnic nationality communities. Ethnically named EAOs also do not necessarily represent local aspirations. Ethnically named EAO liaison offices vary widely in capacity and authority. The boundaries of ethnic states do not align with ethnically self-identifying activists’ aspirations for territorial and political recognition. Ethnically named states are more likely to be the home to heterogeneous populations. Most non-majority ethnic groups are being termed as “ethnic minority” and they suffer a lot. Most non-Bamar identity-based groups prefer to be called “ethnic nationalities” or “nationalities” and mostly they are not comfortable.
The recent mergers of some smaller signatories with Kachin, Mon, Chin, and Karen parties into a single-ethnicity party may present a popular ethnic support during 2020 election. In the 2015 campaign, the opposition parties tried to convince the armed groups to wait for a new government that might promise more allowances.
Repatriation of Rohingya Issue might become a key factor for the election 2020
In general, the Rohingya community is not acceptable to people of Rakhine. This hatred has been generated over the years. Besides, the brutal attitude of the Myanmar military, the nation itself does not possess good idea about the Rohingya community. Though Arakan Army (AA) is not creating any direct confrontation with the Rohingya community, the ethnic Arakanese are not ready to accept the Rohingya community. It has been assumed that the political parties will be extra cautious while commenting about the Rohingya repatriation issue during their election campaign.
Since late 2018, violence between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State has heightened tensions in the fractious region and is likely to continue to do so throughout the time, at least up to the 2020 election. The AA is an ethnic Rakhine armed group that has its sights set on autonomy from Myanmar by 2020, as laid out in its sophisticated online mobilization campaign, ‘Arakan Dream 2020’. The AA operates both in northern Myanmar (Kachin and Shan States) and along the western border (northern Rakhine and southern Chin States). Clashes between the AA and the Tatmadaw have intensified since November 2018 in several townships in the north of Rakhine State and parts of southern Chin State. On January 4, 2019 during Myanmar’s Independence Day, the AA launched a series of coordinated attacks on four Border Guard Police posts in the north of Buthidaung Township in northern Rakhine State. The AA affirmed responsibility for the attacks, which left thirteen police officers dead and nine injured. After the attack, the NLD government instructed the Tatmadaw to “crush” the Arakan Army, which has been declared as a terrorist group.
Two simultaneous approaches, the Panglong peace negotiations and the Rakhine State conflicts are likely to have a major effect on 2020 election. The peace process writ large and conflict mediation efforts in Rakhine State are both likely to be politicized by the opposition political parties, some of which may criticize online and offline the EAOs, Rohingya and other vulnerable communities in the pursuit of populist appeals along the lines of national race protection and sovereignty claims. At the same time, it has be noted that the AA has generated its popularity in central and northern Rakhine State, having attracted the imagination of many Rakhine people through its pursuit of ‘Arakan Dream 2020’ and the ‘Way of Rakhita’ slogan that has become a call for a nationwide armed revolution by the Rakhine people in 2020.
The Look out of Bangladesh on 2020 election result
Despite various international pressures, the Government of Myanmar is always reluctant to take back the Rohingya community. Every time a new form of excuses are being generated to get delay of the repatriation process. Besides the security situation caused by recent conflict between AA and Myanmar military, Rohingya repatriation issue might be considered as an unpopular aspect during the election campaign. In last June 2018 agreement with the UN Development Program and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Myanmar government committed to “creating conducive conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh and for helping to create improved and resilient livelihoods for all communities living in Rakhine State”. The Government of Bangladesh is trying all out to project this issue to the international community. This endeavor needs to be continued so that the ‘election 2020’ does not become an another excuse of creating the Rohingya repatriation process more delayed.
Myanmar’s 2020 election needs to be credible and acceptable to the international community. Legal frameworks, including both electoral laws and the 2008 constitution, should be revised to improve the operating environment for voters, candidates, political parties, media, civil society, and others committed to electoral reform. The constitution should ensure the political independence of the Union Election Commission. Civil society organizations should carve out as much space as possible to support the extending of peaceful, progressive electoral reforms in Myanmar. Facebook should develop greater understanding of the dynamics of the Myanmar conflict and electoral environments. Foreign donors, embassies, and election reform implementers have important roles in developing the hold of democratic electoral institutions and processes in Myanmar. Above all, they should support the continued development of formal and informal institutions and process those are aimed at ensuring the integrity and peaceful conduct of the 2020 election.
It appears that Rohingya repatriation issue is being considered as a forgotten chapter during the electoral process of the upcoming election. Rohingya community being the Myanmar nationals might not be well acceptable to them, this issue is likely to become a concern for the election results; it is absolutely a major issue of Myanmar. Though the Government of Bangladesh provided them shelter on humanitarian ground, subsequently this issue has become a big burden of the country. The powerful nations and international communities should ask Myanmar not to create delay of the repatriation process on various excuses and this time ‘Election-2020’ might become a tools.
Researcher, Geopolitics and CHT