Interview

Pundits’ Takes on Myanmar’s 2020 Election

By The Irrawaddy 3 November 2020

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues. He has worked on Myanmar since 1995, and for 10 years was the senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch. He has been conducting election-related research for more than a year ahead of the Nov. 8 polls. Here are his views on the upcoming election.

What are your thoughts on Myanmar’s upcoming general election in November?

Elections are important milestones in any country moving away from decades of authoritarian rule and isolation, and Myanmar has made important progress. Yet there are very worrying caveats to that progress in these elections, amidst a pandemic the NLD government has mishandled, uncertainty about the safety of people coming to vote and the potential for scores of super-spreader transmissions at polling stations in Yangon and elsewhere, the incompetence of the Union [Election] Commission at a senior level, the political interference by senior political figures, especially State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in the planning for the polls, more violence reported than in previous elections, and justifiable anger at the opacity of the election cancellations in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states. The excitement many people are likely feeling at the opportunity to have their votes count is leavened with fear at catching the virus, and the economic uncertainty and hardships the pandemic have wrought.

What do you think are the main differences between the November election and the previous ones going back to 1990?

These elections are markedly different from previous ones. 1990 was an election conducted in the wake of a massive nationwide uprising that ended years of incompetent Socialist rule, but it also precipitated 20 years of repressive military rule that slowly gathered enough steam to conduct a tightly managed election in 2010 in which many parties were still deterred from contesting. The 2015 elections were a watershed: people voted as much for the NLD as they did against the USDP and the military; it was a repudiation of the Tatmadaw’s [the Myanmar military’s] role in governing the country. However, the NLD government did very little to address the grievances and aspirations of many people who voted for them five years ago. The 2020 elections have to be cast in the light of the disappointment at the unimpressive progress of the government, the general air of high-level meddling in the conduct of the elections, balanced against what is still a very important continual step in democratic consolidation. On a very positive level, the involvement of strong civil society organizations such as PACE [the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections] and many others illustrates a strong commitment to democratic progress in Myanmar, and local-level election officials have been dedicated to conducting free and fair polls, even with an incompetent senior leadership in Naypyitaw. The media has still managed to contribute to accurate reporting on many aspects of the polls. The positive role in preparing for the elections by many people throughout Myanmar must be recognized and applauded, and the commitment by many people to engage in the democratic process.

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?

Given where many people in Myanmar live, there have been exuberant campaigning events, despite fears of COVID-19 and the limits on public gatherings; many supporters of the NLD have been incredibly active. This is at stark contrast to the extent of cancellations, especially in Rakhine State and parts of Shan State, and the strong feelings of being ruthlessly disenfranchised. Campaigning has still proceeded in many ethnic states, but there appears to be simmering resentment at foul play over the elections by the government and the Tatmadaw. Assessments of the elections have to consider these contrasting experiences. We also have to remember that the one-quarter unelected seats of the Tatmadaw in national and state and regional assemblies [makes] this election a 75-percent exercise, with no progress over the past five years in diluting this military advantage. The Tatmadaw is still an unwelcome squatter in the parliamentary process.

While ethnic parties are stronger and more active than in 2015, the NLD is still popular. What is your prediction for the election outcome?

Given the enormous and widespread popularity of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and popular support for the NLD in the heartland regions, it is almost a forgone conclusion the NLD will be returned to power—perhaps with a reduced majority, but coming off a resounding landslide in 2015 the NLD will continue its rule. Ethnic parties in Shan, Kachin and Mon will likely do well, but the odds are stacked against them to have more influence in the national Parliament and the states. The NLD will still choose chief ministers and many of the state assemblies have little real power, so even more ethnic seats will be a Pyrrhic victory. The NLD has almost completely neglected the aspirations of the ethnic parties, and failed to pursue genuine national reconciliation, so the election outcome won’t solve the political outcome, of widening political and social divisions.

If the NLD wins enough seats to form the government, what can we expect for post-election Myanmar given the 2008 Constitution and the military’s involvement in politics?

The depressingly likely result of the 2020 elections will be more of the lackluster governance style of the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The last five years has failed to produce any progress on constitutional reform; [there have been] some gains in economic reform but still the specter of corruption, widespread environmental degradation and land grabbing, and the lascivious specter of Chinese infrastructure development looms over the development of the country.

Myanmar now faces a stark future of continued plunder, caught between the Scylla of predatory Chinese expansion or the Charybdis of World Bank-style infrastructure, with many Western donors retreating on promoting people-centered development and instead injecting funds into destructive infrastructure projects that Naypyitaw is more interested in.

The peace process has been one of the most glaring disasters of the NLD, failing to be all-inclusive of groups outside the now discredited Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA], [with] the rise of an ultraviolent Arakan Army [in western Myanmar] and continued armed resistance in Shan State, and regular fighting even with signatories to the NCA, still hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, [and] intense restrictions on humanitarian access to people affected by armed conflict, with international donors pitchforking lavish funding into a non-performing process. This renders clear that the State Counselor’s view of reconciliation is predicated on her continued struggle with the Tatmadaw that has been raging since 1990, and not addressing the deeper ethnic divisions in the country. The future for Myanmar is a central heartland where living conditions gradually improve but with reduced rights and an underfunded public health care system, and ethnic states where massive drug production, land grabs, multi-sided armed conflict and increased migration and inter-group tensions will increase.

Elections should actually address these deep fissures, and generate a new class of political leaders beyond the male gerontocracy that run most political parties and key institutions such as the UEC, and the increasingly imperious and disconnected State Counselor. The real future of the electoral progress in Myanmar will hinge on the inclusion and participation of nearly 5 million new voters this year and looking ahead to the 2025 elections and the serious facing up to the issues that continue to divide Myanmar.

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