Myanmar Election Commissions’ Track Record Mixed at Best Over Past 30 Years
By Wei Yan Aung 22 October 2020
YANGON—There have been four election commissions in the electoral history of Myanmar from the 1990 election to this year’s upcoming vote.
These include the 1990 election commission led by U Ba Htay, the 2010 election commission headed by U Thein Soe, the 2015 election commission headed by U Tin Aye, and the 2020 election commission headed by U Hla Thein.
The five-member election commission headed by retired financial commissioner U Ba Htay was given responsibility for organizing the 1990 election, the first multiparty democratic election since the coup by dictator General Ne Win in 1962. But the commission ran into objections on the very day it was formed, Sept. 11, 1988.
Democracy supporters Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Aung Gyi, ex-General U Tin Oo and other pro-democracy organizations said that while they had respect for the commission members, they had no trust in the commission itself because it was formed by the government of Dr. Maung Maung, which in turn was under the thumb of military dictator Gen. Ne Win.
And many people suspected the commission would be biased in favor of the National Unity Party (NUP), the proxy of the Burma Socialist Programme Party led by Gen. Ne Win.
A total of 93 parties competed in the 1990 election, and the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi secured a landslide victory, winning 392 seats in 495 constituencies. The NUP won just won 10 seats. As a result, the election commission headed by U Ba Htay won credit at home and abroad for holding a free and fair election.
The military regime, however, refused to hand over power to the NLD. It would not allow another election until 20 years later in 2010. That election was held under the 2008 Constitution, which the regime had designed for its own benefit. While Myanmar’s generals did not compete in the election in 1990, in 2010 they ran on the ticket of the military’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Brigadier General Saw Kyar Doe, who retired from the Myanmar military after independence, had been the only military-related member of the 1990 election commission. But in 2010, the military regime appointed U Soe Thein as the commission’s chairman.
U Soe Thein is a former major general who had served as the Myanmar military’s judge advocate general, and later as deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court, and was also a member of the commission that drafted the 2008 Constitution.
The 17 individuals chosen by the military regime to form the UEC were a mixture of former military officers, judges, lawyers, professors and ethnic nationals.
Most believed the election could not be free and fair because the 17-member commission barred international media and foreign election observers from covering the election, and because election laws were designed to restrict the NLD.
The NLD boycotted the election, citing undemocratic provisions in the 2008 Constitution and unfair election laws and rules.
A total of 37 parties took part in the 2010 general election, and the USDP won a majority. But the people of Myanmar and the international community believed the party won only because it rigged the vote.
Ex-General U Thein Sein, as the USDP chairman, became the President. In 2011, he appointed ex-General U Tin Aye, his colleague from Intake No. 9 of the Defense Services Academy, as the election commission chairman.
Like U Thein Sein, U Tin Aye resigned as a general and ran in the 2010 election on the ticket of the USDP. He was elected to the Lower House representing Tada-U Township in Mandalay.
President U Thein Sein and commission chairman U Tin Aye had Myanmar’s election law amended, including the removal of a provision stating that “political party leaders must safeguard the 2008 Constitution.” They also changed the law on political parties registration so that NLD chairperson Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party members could run candidates in the 2012 by-election.
The eight-member commission led by U Tin Aye was able to successfully hold the 2012 by-election, in which 17 parties including the NLD contested. In that election, the NLD ran candidates for the first time since 1990 and its chairperson contested for the first time. The NLD won 43 seats and the USDP only secured a single seat out of the 45 up for grabs.
In early 2015, the UEC was expanded, with President U Thein Sein acquiescing to calls for greater ethnic minority representation on the commission. Eight more members were appointed to the commission to represent the country’s main ethnic minority groups. Each was assigned an individual state portfolio, with Shan State allotted three ethnic Shan commission members.
The 2015 general election was also organized by U Tin Aye’s commission. For the first time, international election observers were allowed to monitor the election process, and the commission also cooperated with international agencies, civil society organizations and political parties.
However during the campaign period, the commission issued statements and warnings intended to restrict the campaign of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. U Tin Aye also accompanied U Thein Sein on his tours around the country, recruited ex-military officers to the election sub-commissions, and said that instability could result in a coup. As a result, people harbored doubts as to the impartiality of the commission. Opposition to the commission arose, with people calling for its reconstitution.
Ninety-one political parties fielded candidates in the 2015 general election. The NLD again won a landslide victory, securing 77.04 percent of seats, or 866 seats, in 1,150 constituencies. The poll was thus recognized as a free and fair election.
The NLD took over power from U Thein Sein’s government in 2016 and became the first civilian government since 1962, despite the fact that Myanmar’s military retains three key ministries and holds 25 percent of seats in the Parliament.
The NLD government established the first election commission that consists only of civilians and no military officials. The five-member commission is led by the ex-rector of Meiktila University, U Hla Thein. Other members are from legal and education circles.
However, the commission formed by the NLD government for the 2020 vote drew criticism over flawed voter lists. People also criticized the commission for failing to meet with political parties and civil society organizations as frequently as it had under U Tin Aye’s leadership.
The commission also attracted harsh criticism when it cited security risks and canceled elections in nine townships in Rakhine State, six townships in Shan State and over 500 wards and village-tracts in Kachin, Karen and Mon states and Bago Region, even though many believe some of those areas are stable enough to host elections.
U Hla Thein’s commission said its first priority was the safety of voters, and ordered the cancellation of elections there based on suggestions from the Defense and Home ministries, and general administration departments and election commissions at different levels.
U Hla Thein recently said his commission is reconsidering whether Rakhine State’s Ann Township and Chin State’s Paletwa are fit to host elections; the former has a strong security presence and the latter is the scene of ongoing armed clashes between government troops and the Arakan Army.
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