David Steinberg is a specialist on Myanmar, the Korean Peninsula, Southeast Asia and US policy in Asia. He is distinguished professor of Asian Studies emeritus at Georgetown University, and was for 10 years director of Asia Studies there. His works on Myanmar include “Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence” (2012, with Fan Hongwei); “Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know” (2010, 2012); “Turmoil in Burma: Contested Legitimacies in Myanmar” (2006); and “Burma: The State of Myanmar” (2001). He occasionally contributes to The Irrawaddy, and here offers his views on issues surrounding the election.
What are your thoughts on Myanmar’s upcoming general election in November?
I think that where voting takes place, it will generally be fair—that is, the votes will be counted properly. But there will be significant areas where because of security or COVID, votes will not be allowed, and these will be in ethnic minority areas, which will undercut their relations with the Bamah majority.
What do you think are the main differences between the November election and the previous ones back to 1990?
There is no comparison with 1990.
Many international observers fear that the November election will not be free and fair, citing disenfranchisements and campaign restrictions. However, on the ground, voters and parties alike are still quite enthusiastic and active. What is your view?
It will be acceptable. These 2020 elections are very important to continue the pattern of elections themselves, for then any future government will have great difficulty in avoiding elections and ruling by decree. Yes, there will be limitations, but overall I expect it will be deemed a reasonable effort.
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 expect the NLD will win with a diminished majority, and ethnic parties will do better than in 2015, but the Bamah majority will hold power.
If the NLD wins enough seats to form the government, what can we expect to see in post-election Myanmar, given the 2008 Constitution and the military’s involvement in politics?
The military has designed a system under the 2008 Constitution in which it will hold the essential power of those aspects of the society it feels protects its core interests: unity of the state; control over the Defense, Home Affairs and Border [Affairs] ministries; a majority on the [National Defense and Security Council]; autonomy of the military in managing its own affairs; and prevention of changes to the Constitution it does not want (assuming there is no split within the military). Relations with the civilian government will continue to be tense, and none of the basic problems of the state will be resolved, alas.
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