What can we expect for Myanmar in 2019? Many people no doubt have numerous hopes. Personally, I only have one, and it’s not asking much—simply that 2019 turns out to be a year of stability that paves the way for free and fair elections to be held as planned in 2020.
That’s it. Nothing more. That’s not a big deal, is it?
In fact, it’s a very big deal for a country like Myanmar, where the notion of free and fair elections was a dream until very recently.
The main reason is this: The 2020 general election will be just the second major step forward for the country’s fragile democratic transition. To make sure this transition stays on the right track, it is essential that elections be held without disruption over the coming decades, no matter which party wins. Of course, every election must be free from manipulation and vote rigging.
Technically, next year’s general election will be just the second in the 30 years since the 1990 elections. I do not count the 1990 election. It was not rigged—worse than that, its result was annulled by the military regime. The regime refused to honor the result after the party it backed, the National Unity Party—the successor to dictator Ne Win’s socialist party—was defeated by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in a landslide.
Before that, one has to look back to 1960 to find the country’s previous free and fair elections, which saw the re-election U Nu, who had been the first premier after the country regained its independence in 1948. The elections of 2010 were not inclusive, as they were held while then-opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Her NLD decided not to take part in the elections and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won as expected. It was believed that the vote count was skewed by “advance votes.” So we don’t need to count that election either.
Thus, the general election of 2015 was the only valid one Myanmar has held in 60 years, making the upcoming vote in 2020 just the second.
Here in Myanmar, we feel confident at the moment that the election will happen next year. But who knows?
Myanmar always surprises the world—whether positively or negatively. People power toppled the authoritarian regime in 1988 and the military turned their machine guns on crowds of innocent people; the military held free and fair elections in 1990—leading the opposition to win in a landslide—and never honored the result of its own election; in 2003 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi narrowly escaped an allegedly state-sponsored attack on her motorcade in upper Myanmar; Buddhist monks took to the streets to stage the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 and the military brutally crushed it; in 2008 Cyclone Nargis killed over 130,000 people, devastating many towns, and just days later the military went ahead with the planned referendum on its undemocratic constitution; the military handed over power to a hand-picked retired general, President U Thein Sein, in 2011 after its election the previous year, and he surprised many by opening up the country; the NLD government took office to an outpouring of national joy in 2016 after its victory in the 2015 election, only to come under attack internationally, mainly due to the Rakhine conflict in 2017—and more surprises are surely in the pipeline.
Looking back on those surprises, we can’t be sure everything will go smoothly in the run-up to the 2020 elections.
Myanmar is not yet a democracy, but it is still crawling its way toward it, encountering resistance both visible and invisible, and from both formal and informal obstacles, including some prescribed by the existing Constitution. The peace process prioritized by the NLD-led government has all but stalled. Rakhine State in western Myanmar seems increasingly unstable in the face of a more aggressive military strategy deployed by the Arakan Army. There are many issues—seen and unseen—likely to be instigated by religious radicals that could destabilize the political situation in Myanmar.
All over the world, core elements of democracy are being challenged, not only in the United States and Western Europe, but also in Eastern Europe and Asia, in countries like Turkey and Venezuela, but even in Sweden and India. Illiberal ideologies are spreading.
However, democracy has a way of persevering; that much is true. But there is one essential condition for this to happen—it must be entrenched through the regular holding of free and fair elections.
Myanmar missed that opportunity in the post-independence era from 1948 to 1958 under Premier U Nu’s leadership. His government failed to entrench democracy or its fundamental prerequisite—elections—though it held three general elections in 1951-1952, 1956 and 1960. But those three elections didn’t become a political tradition in the country due to the civil war and the rise of militarism. Finally, this failure to entrench democracy led to the military coup of 1962.
Six decades later, the country must not let it happen again. If we face a similar situation again—not only in 2019, but also in the coming decades—our journey to democracy will be derailed again, as it was under U Nu’s government.
Looking at the United States today, we see there has been no disruption to its election cycle or its basic democratic system; elections there have become an entrenched political tradition, along with strong institutions and the U.S. Constitution. Thus, even though it is currently led by an illiberal president like Donald Trump, voters get a chance to reconsider their leader once every four years. Regular free and fair elections are politically essential as a fundamental principle or prerequisite for democracy.
Looking at Thailand, we can say democracy is not yet entrenched there, as it has still not become a tradition in the country. Its military can always return to seize power by force and disrupt or postpone elections as long as it wants. In Cambodia, elections are consistently rigged or manipulated by its leader Hun Sen. Such a democracy is just a sham.
Such scenarios are not what Myanmar—or any democracy—needs.
To hold a free and fair election once every five years in Myanmar is more important than anything else when it comes to maintaining its fledgling democratic transition after five decades of military rule. Even if the incumbent government can’t succeed in its main task of amending the 2008 Constitution (and this appears unlikely), the country will go on to hold free and fair elections in 2020. Consistently holding elections is a way of planting the roots of genuine democracy in the country.
But ensuring that this occurs is the responsibility of all defenders of democracy, from all walks of life. To that end, we need to maintain a general political stability, and avoid emergency situations that could invite disruptions from the enemies of democracy.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the Editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy.