Priscilla A. Clapp is a former United States diplomat who served as chief of mission and permanent charge d’affaires at the US Embassy in Myanmar from 1999 to 2002. She is currently a senior adviser to the US Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Asia Society. She is a retired minister-counselor in the US Foreign Service.
Clapp is the author of numerous publications on Myanmar and US-Myanmar policy published by USIP, the East-West Center, the Asia Society, the Australian National University, Singapore’s ISEAS and others. She is also an active media commentator.
What are your thoughts on Myanmar’s upcoming general election in November?
My main impression is that there is more tension around this election than the past two, but perhaps I am not close enough to see the real picture. The cancellations in Rakhine State are extremely disappointing, but understandable considering the devastation and continuing conflict on the ground. There seems to be a real danger of voters and election workers in Rakhine being targeted by combatants.
What do you think are the main differences between the November election and the previous ones going back to 1990?
The 1990 election was a prelude to subsequent elections in various ways. The surprise massive win by the NLD in 1990 [later] motivated the USDP to cut the NLD out of the 2010 elections in order to ensure that the USDP could cheat its way to a win equal to that achieved legitimately by the NLD in 1990. The 2015 election just proved why the USDP had good reason to fear competing against the NLD in 2010. The NLD won another landslide and the USDP was marginalized. I expect this pattern will continue in 2020, although the NLD win may not be as huge as in the past. Once a party wins the right to govern, it inevitably does not meet everyone’s expectations. That is an impossible task!
Many international observers fear that the November election will not be free or fair, citing disenfranchisement and campaign restrictions. However, on the ground, voters and parties alike are still quite enthusiastic and active. What is your view?
I expect the elections to be relatively free and fair, despite some unfortunate incidents here and there, and I expect a large turnout. With the military no longer in charge of the process, the possibility of rigged elections or cheating with the vote is much less. The fact that teachers man most of the polls ensures that voters can be confident their ballots are in good hands! However, the continued disenfranchisement of certain groups, like the Rohingya, is terribly unfortunate and detracts from the democratic legitimacy of the elections.
While ethnic parties are stronger and more active than in 2015, the NLD is still popular. What is your prediction for the election outcome?
I see no way that the NLD would not take a majority, even if it is less of a majority than in the past, because elections in Myanmar are still dominated by the unpopularity of the military, and the NLD is the antidote to that. Furthermore, the NLD dominates in the powerful center of the country, where a preponderance of the votes will come from. On the other hand, I think ethnic parties are nonetheless likely to make substantial gains, particularly at the state level, where they can enjoy a greater hand in governance than they would as small minorities at the national level. So watch the state level results. The SNLD, in particular, is showing remarkable political sophistication. Their platform is very impressive in its vision for the country.
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