Guest Column

Myanmar Military’s Long History of Electoral Fraud

By Bertil Lintner 19 July 2022

If Myanmar’s military dictator, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is to be believed, elections will possibly be held sometime next year. After overthrowing a democratically elected government and, according to United Nations data, killing at least 1,500 pro-democracy demonstrators and activists and detaining and arresting almost another 8,800, as well as forcing over a million people to become both internal and external refugees, it would be hard for anyone to take such assurances seriously. The only takers would be some of Myanmar’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN), which in any case is a ten-member bloc mostly made up of undemocratic regimes.

To get a better understanding of what the Senior General and his cohorts are up to, it would also be useful to examine Myanmar’s electoral history since the military first seized power in a coup in 1962. For the first twelve years, Myanmar was ruled by a “Revolutionary Council” made up of senior army officers. Then, in December 1973, a referendum was held on a new constitution. However, the ‘voting’ hardly met any acceptable, democratic standard. There were two boxes in the polling booths, a white one for the yes-votes and a black for the no-votes. The two boxes were hidden behind a screen, but placed in different corners of the polling booth — and there was a 15-20cm wide gap between the ground and the screen, so officials could easily see how people voted. Even so, some voters managed to cast their ballots in the no-box but, hardly surprisingly, the authorities announced that 90.19 per cent had approved the new constitution and it was promulgated on January 3, 1974.

Elections were held in January and February 1974 but, according to the new constitution, Myanmar had become a one-party state so all 451 contested seats were won by the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) with an officially declared 94.61 per cent turnout. The number of members of the Pyithu Hluttaw, or the legislative People’s Assembly, fluctuated somewhat, so that the BSPP won 464 of 464 contested seats in 1978, 475 out of 475 in 1981 and 489 out of 489 in 1985. Elections were also supposed to have taken place in parts of the country which were not even controlled by the government, but held by various armed rebel movements.

Voters in Yangon wait to cast their ballots on November 8, 2020, the day of the general election. / The Irrawaddy

Then came the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which was brutally crushed and led to the formation of a new junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). But, to the surprise of many, the one-party system was abolished and then junta chief General Saw Maung promised to hold what he termed “free and fair elections”. The BSPP had been transformed into a new pro-military entity, the National Unity Party (NUP), and the generals probably overestimated its importance and popularity. I remember meeting Ye Htut, a SLORC information officer, in January 1989 and he told me that “you foreigners believe that the NLD has widespread popular support. They may have some followers in urban areas, but in the countryside, the people support us.” The NLD, or the National League for Democracy, was formed after the August-September 1988 uprising and soon became the main force for a restoration of the democracy that Myanmar had enjoyed prior to the 1962 coup.

Robert Taylor, a Western academic and well-known defender of successive authoritarian Myanmar regimes, expressed the same view in a lengthy article in the March 1990 issue of Current History: “Many observers feel that it (the NUP) will do well in the election.” The argument at the time was that the NLD may be strong in urban areas, whereas in the countryside people would vote for “the devil they know”.

Elections were held on May 27, 1990 and it was a landslide victory for the NLD. It captured 392 of 485 contested seats, in urban as well as rural areas, while the NUP got a mere 10 seats. It may be argued that the NUP, after all, got a bit over 20 per cent of the popular vote, but only a tiny fraction of the seats because Myanmar elections are not proportional. But no matter how one looks at it, the NUP was routed — and the military had to create an entirely new political platform, that, in 1993, became the Union Solidarity and Development Association, which was renamed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in 2010.

But, in 1990, the “wrong” party had won so the rules had to change. On July 27, two months after the election, the SLORC issued “Announcement 1/90” declaring that only the junta “has the right to legislative power” — and that “the representatives elected by the people” would merely be “responsible for drafting a new constitution for a future democratic state.” Within days of the announcement, Myanmar’s military intelligence service — which is more of secret police force than an actual intelligence service — launched a massive campaign against elected NLD MPs. By the end of the year, 65 had been arrested, nearly a dozen had fled to neighboring countries such as Thailand and India, and many resigned voluntarily.

The elected Pyithu Hluttaw was never convened. Instead, about 100 of the 485 MPs elected were to sit in a “National Convention” together with 600 other, non-elected representatives who had been handpicked by the military to draft a new constitution. Eighteen years later, in April 2008, that task was eventually completed and a referendum was held. As expected by most serious observers of the political scene in Myanmar, it turned out to be blatantly fraudulent. The ruling junta, now renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced that the constitution had been approved by 92.4 per cent of voters, claiming a 99 per cent turnout in the regions where voting had taken place. However, in some constituencies, it was reported that more than 100 per cent of voters had approved of the new constitution — which had to be corrected to give the new constitution at least a semblance of credibility.

A voter casts his ballot on November 8, 2015, the day of the general election. / The Irrawaddy

After the referendum, a general election followed in November 2010, which, again, every serious observer agrees was also rigged. The USDP ‘won’ a landslide victory, capturing a solid majority in both the upper and lower houses of the new parliament. In addition, a quarter of all seats in both chambers were reserved for the military, and thus not even elected. A new ‘civilian’ government was formed consisting mainly of military officers who had replaced their uniforms with civilian clothes. The new president, U Thein Sein, a former general, had previously served as a military-appointed prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and as first secretary of the SPDC.

U Thein Sein’s government did, however, order the release of political prisoners and allowed parties, including the NLD, to operate openly. Press censorship was lifted and new civil society organizations were formed. The notion that Myanmar was going through a transition to a civilian-based system of government became widespread, at least among foreign observers. The U Thein Sein government also initiated a ‘peace process’ whereby the country’s ethnic armed organizations were invited to talks with the new government and the military.

As a result, U Thein Sein was hailed in the Western media as “Myanmar’s Gorbachev” leading the country toward a better future. That impression was strengthened when the NLD won a landslide victory in the November 2015 election capturing 255 of 330 contested seats in the Lower House and 135 of 168 contested seats in the Upper House. The USDP won only 30 and 11 seats respectively. In addition, 56 seats in the Upper House and 110 in the Lower were appointed by the military.

The military accepted the outcome of the 2015 election and the NLD was allowed to form a new government — but only after the old dictator and SPDC Chairman, Senior General Than Shwe, had intervened and sent not an army officer but his non-political and popular-music loving grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung, better known as Phoe La Pyae, as his personal intermediary. The NLD scored another, even bigger, victory in November 2020, winning 258 seats in the Upper House and 138 in the Lower. Once again, the USDP suffered a humiliating defeat, winning just 26 seats in the Upper House and 7 in the Lower.

A second NLD victory was more than the military could accept, and the generals began talking about “voter fraud” while international and domestic poll watchers insisted that the 2020 election was largely free and fair. The NLD was about to form a second government when the military stepped in on February 1 last year and arrested the entire cabinet, including President U Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. What has happened since then is well documented. Myanmar has entered a new era of its decades-long civil war. Now armed ethnic Bamar groups, as well as ethnic minority rebels, are fighting military regime troops, and the new junta, the State Administration Council (SAC), has unleashed an almost unprecedented reign of terror across the country to prove its point, that the 2020 election was marred with fraud — contrary to what everybody else has been saying.

Only a complete fool can believe that the SAC, under present circumstances and with past experiences of elections in Myanmar fresh in the memory, would hold free and fair elections and, if they were free and fair, honor the result. Myanmar has reached a point of no return from which there is no easy way out. After the introduction of a number of liberalizations after 2010 — it would be wrong to call them ‘reforms’ because no organic changes were made to the 2008 constitution which guaranteed the military’s supreme powers — the general public appeared to be prepared to forgive and forget what atrocities the generals had committed in the past. But not this time. The military has gone too far, and will never be forgiven for the pain and suffering it has inflicted on the people and the country. The generals may also be acutely aware of this and realize that they are either in power — or they are in prison, or worse. Fear is the glue that keeps the military together and that is why they can’t give up their stranglehold on the nation. They are not going to change.

It would also be foolish to expect, as some foreign governments seem to do, ASEAN to act as some kind of mediator in the conflict. Apart from being a bloc of predominantly undemocratic nations, ASEAN’s two “guiding principles”, non-interference and consensus, would prevent it from taking any affirmative action when it comes to the internal affairs of a member country. And then there is the “constructive-engagement-lobby” consisting of mostly Western academics and self-proclaimed peacemakers, who naively believe that Myanmar’s generals would listen to their advice. They will remain what they always have been: court jesters who are a source of amusement rather than inspiration.

Myanmar is well on its way to becoming a failed state and that is the fault of the military which seized power in 1962 and never let go of it. The end result may be what the generals say they fear the most: disintegration of the Union. And that would have far-reaching consequences for the entire South and Southeast Asian region.