Myanmar’s Election 2020: A Look Into the Crystal Ball

By The Irrawaddy 22 August 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! It is less than three months until the November election. Though it is not yet the campaign period now, we are seeing more interesting political views and activities. We will discuss what is interesting in the current political landscape, how the 2020 election can shape that landscape, and which parties can secure electoral victory. Vice chairwoman of the Democratic Party for a New Society Ma Noe Noe Htet San and one of the leaders of the Federal Democratic Force, Ko Mya Aye, join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

As I’ve said it is less than three months until the election. The electoral campaign period has not yet begun, but things have already come alive. Ma Noe Noe Htet San, your party will field candidates in the November election. How do you feel about the current political landscape? How is it different from the political landscape before the 2015 general election?

Noe Noe Htet San: Here, I’d like to talk about the political process before discussing the current political landscape. As everyone knows, we have to run in the election under the 2008 Constitution. I mean the 2008 Constitution has a lot of control over the election. But this is one of the paths toward democracy. And still it depends on how much the democratic forces can push through that path. There will be certain achievements if we can push for democracy along with the election. But there will barely be progress if democracy and the election are treated separately.

It is very important for major parties, especially those wishing to establish federal democracy, to understand this point, if they are to push for democracy. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won in 2015 general elections. And I think the party was unable to implement the process to establish democracy. Five years after the party took office, both ethnic forces and democratic forces said they have to rely on themselves. And at the individual level, some individuals are even talking about not voting for any party, not because they don’t support them, but because they want to show their opposition to the 2008 Constitution. This shows that if we take an opportunity for democratization, we have to make use of it. If we fail to make use of it, there can be repercussions.

KZM: You mean the NLD won the 2015 general election, but it failed to work decisively over the past four years?

NNHS: Yes, that’s right. It has performed very poorly in pushing for democratization.

KZM: Many believe that the 2010 poll was rigged. So, we will set it aside for now. To compare the political landscapes before 2015 and the upcoming election, what do you think are the differences? Has there been any progress toward democratization?

Mya Aye: Before the 2015 election, all the groups had one single goal: To get rid of the military’s influence. So, despite the different political views—it is usual for different groups to have different views—all the groups joined hands, and the people actively participated. So, it was simple. I would call the 2015 election the silent revolution of the people [against military rule]. So, [democratic forces] won the 2015 poll.

Given the political landscape of Myanmar, we should look at the entire course of history rather than a phase of the election. There were student movements and since the 1988 coup, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has had influence over the people. No one can deny this fact. Whether we like it or not, her party is at the forefront [of the democracy movement in Myanmar] now. So, the entire people voted for the NLD, which is the forefront of the democracy movement. The problem is that the political landscape of Myanmar is rather a top-down system. Though we got a democratically elected government due to the pressures from the people, the system we got was not the one that we want. It is the system designed by the other side. In other words, it is based on a seven-point road map.

KZM: Which was designed by the military regime?

MA: Yes.  The system is run under the 2008 Constitution. Currently, we can divide the political landscape into two—inside the Parliament and outside the Parliament. Speaking of the political landscape outside the Parliament, not all the ethnic armed groups want to join the Parliament. I will only talk about the 21st-Century Panglong Conference here, though there are many other things [that discourage them from joining the Parliament].  The NLD government was barely able to link between the political landscapes inside and outside the Parliament in the past five years. And the peace process was unsuccessful. Ten ethnic armed groups signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA]. The peace process was unsuccessful as a consequence of the weaknesses in signing of the NCA in October 2015. Other groups opted out of signing the NCA mainly because the U Thein Sein government didn’t allow the Arakan Army, the MNDAA [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army] and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army to sign the truce. These are interrelated.

KZM: You said the NLD was at the forefront of the democracy movement in 2015. It was at the forefront, too, in 1990 [when a general election was held]. What will be its position in 2020?

MA: My view is that no matter what opinions and wishes we have, the majority of the people will still vote for the NLD. Whether we like it or not, it is the reality that the NLD is the preeminent party that is accepted by the majority of the people.

KZM: What Ko Mya Aye said is indisputable. But the NLD has also drawn considerable criticism for the lack of progress in the peace process and for cold-shouldering the ethnic parties. I also see that some ethnic parties have formed strong mergers in their respective states. Ma Noe Noe Htet San, how many seats will your party contest in the coming election? Compared with 2015, it appears that voters will consider the capacity of candidates rather than the party they belong to. What is your view on that?

NNHS: People in this country, thanks to their political awareness, know exactly who to vote for. And I assume that they will know whom to vote for at the regional and state level. Our party is a small party and we can only field 16 candidates. We are trying to position ourselves as a party that has real desire for democracy and a federal Union in the future. At the same time, we have to promote equality and unity. Participation by women is currently a top issue. Fifty percent of our candidates are women. Again, it is said that the voices of the youth are not represented. So, we have selected young candidates. And we also consider minorities. We believe we should take minorities into consideration under any circumstances. If all the major parties have such thoughts, it will be easier to push for democracy.

If there is no significant action regarding human rights, equality and ethnic issues, this can create doubts about the democratization process. Speaking of the NLD’s [unfriendly] attitude toward ethnic parties after the 2015 election, I don’t know whether or not the party has a policy to treat them so. But the actions of the party and remarks of the party’s vice-chairman have raised a lot of questions. It was too much for a party, which was born out of democratic forces, to speak like that. So, there will be a lot of questions as to the possible results of the 2020 election.

KZM: How many seats do you think your party will win in the election? The NLD party remains the leading party, and though its popularity has declined, it still enjoys considerable support. So, what are your expectations?

NNHS: According to our assessment, we can in no way outperform the NLD. Because our candidates are not competing with NLD candidates, but with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The State Counselor enjoys enormous popularity. So, it is even hard to say whether we can win a single seat. We want all 16 of our candidates to win, and we have made preparations for that.

KZM: Ko Mya Aye, there have been different opinions regarding choosing candidates. Some call for voting for the party without considering the capacity of the candidate, and some call for considering the capacity of the candidate instead of the party’s popularity. What is your assessment?

MA: It depends on the political system that is in use, as well as the system of the party. In my opinion, party is more important [than capacity of individual candidates]. We don’t have enough time to discuss it here. Under the 2008 Constitution, the system being practiced in our country is neither parliamentary democracy nor presidential democracy. It is somewhere between these two. So, there is a need for thorough analysis. So, I would like to set aside the topic of “party or person” because I will have to present a number of reasons to support my argument. In fact, we have to consider the party. The policy of the party is the key. If you join a party out of your support for it, you will have to follow its policy. If you don’t like that policy, you have to struggle within the party for democracy centralization. For example, take a look at Deng Xiaoping of the Communist Party of China. He failed three times and came back all those times. This is just one of the examples.

The most important thing in this country is to achieve internal peace. People who live in ethnic areas must support ethnic parties. Political spaces must be given to ethnic parties. The NLD remains the leading party. But our democratic forces are frustrated that its alliance policy with ethnic parties has ceased. This is what I am most concerned about.

KZM: It is likely that voters will give more votes to ethnic parties. And ethnic parties have merged and become stronger. What if the NLD fails to win the enough votes to elect the President?

MA: Some alliances are made before the election, and some are made after the election. In the latter, you make alliances only after you win certain seats.

KZM: You mean you want the NLD to make alliances after election.

MA: I think the NLD would not be forced to make alliances [to be able to form the government], but it should think about Plan B to avoid it.

KZM: So, the NLD should think about how to ally with ethnic parties if it needs more seats in the Union Parliament to elect the President?

MA: Of course, I want to see the NLD ally with ethnic parties and democratic parties.

KZM: When we discuss the election, we can’t just talk about political parties and those who stand for election. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] plays a very important role. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, if elected by Tatmadaw[-appointed] lawmakers, can at least become the vice-president. Or he can run in the election if he is confident that he can win. Ma Noe Noe Htet San, has your party considered his political ambition?

NNHS: As the 2008 Constitution was designed unlawfully, the military must give up 25 percent of the seats it holds in Parliament so that the Constitution can be amended. Military personnel should know that it is unethical of them to join politics while they are still serving in the military.

KZM: But he [Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing] has a right, like every citizen, to stand for election.

NNHS: Yes, but only after he has left the service. At the same time, he must remove the military bloc from Parliament. Then he can stand for election, like the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] did. We welcome the emergence of new political parties. We are willing to talk to any party. Whether they are friend or foe is another part of the question. But we will have to think differently if he still has influence over the military even after he takes off the uniform. Whether he has the right to stand for election depends on that. It is not a bad thing if he retires from the military and stands for election.

KZM: It is generally agreed that the most important thing in Myanmar is to achieve peace, and that the ruling party and its government alone can’t secure peace. There are problems that persist today due to the weaknesses of the NCA [as implemented] in U Thein Sein’s administration. Is the Tatmadaw taking any practical action to achieve peace as soon as possible though it had pledged to bring about peace in 2020? Given the political role of the Tatmadaw, and the fact that peace has not yet been achieved and that the Constitution still can’t be amended, what do you think the voters should do?

MA: In an election, people [cast votes based on their wish] to attain the government they want. I mean, in the 2015 poll, people tried to remove all the people who had links to the military, who had ruled though successive periods.

KZM: But they remain.

MA: I mean the NLD won the 2015 poll due to that fact. In the coming election, ethnic parties have become strong as people look for a federal Union. Whether the ethnic parties will win or the NLD will win in a particular ethnic area will depend on the choice of the Burmese and ethnic people living in that area. This is how people will choose how the country should move forward under the 2008 Constitution. In the current political landscape, there are ethnic parties, the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups; democratic forces including the NLD—particularly democratic forces—should be on the same side. Ma Noe Noe Htet San’s party will field 16 candidates. [The NLD] should help them along in some constituencies. This is my personal view. It should allow political space for ethnic parties in ethnic areas. Still it will depend on how hard ethnic parties try. We also don’t want the Myanmar military to hold 25 percent of seats in the Parliament. We only want a 100-percent civilian government.

There is one thing that the entire country is demanding—all the stakeholders including the government, commander-in-chief, ethnic armed groups, NCA signatories and non-signatories have been saying, “Let’s establish a federal democratic Union.” So there is a need to design a Constitution that suits it in next few years.

KZM: But there is little potential for that.

MA: Not much at all.

KZM: My final question. The election is just a few months away. I will ask about your feelings now, not for an analysis. How do you feel about the coming election? Is it encouraging or discouraging to you?

MA: I have been in the political landscape outside the Parliament from the very beginning. Generally speaking, it is important that democratic forces and ethnic forces are strong in the Parliament.

KZM: Do you feel more positive or negative—more hopeful or frustrated?

MA: Speaking of hope, as it is concerns the whole country, I can’t only base hope on politics inside the Parliament.

KZM: You have no feelings about it?

MA: I can’t only base hope on politics inside the Parliament. The failed charter amendment has borne witness to that. So, there is a need to link between politics inside and outside the Parliament. I remain hopeful. Nevertheless, it is important that pro-democracy people secure seats in the Parliament.

KZM: Ma Noe Noe Htet San, do you think our country has made progress over the past 30 years. Are you satisfied or frustrated?

NNHS: I feel more excited and more hopeful about the 2020 election. Because I think over the next five years, a political landscape will emerge for us to push ourselves forward. I would like to wait and see how much we will be able to struggle through.

KZM: Do you think there will be a U-turn?

NNHS: I don’t think so.

KZM: Ko Mya Aye?

MA: There is no definite answer. It is fifty-fifty.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions!

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