Guest Column

Myanmar’s Transition From Electoral Politics to Gun Politics

By Ye Myo Hein 11 November 2021

The 1874 general election in the United Kingdom marked a major step in the country’s progress to full democracy. Following the 1872 Secret Ballot Act, a secret vote was used for the first time in a general election. That allowed tenants more freedom to vote for their political preferences, as they now faced less of a threat of eviction if they voted against the will of their landlords. Thanks to the secret ballot, the Irish Home Rule League Party won 60 seats in Parliament, wresting control of Irish politics from the previously dominant Conservative and Liberal parties. In mainstream politics, the Liberals, led by William Gladstone, lost to the Conservative Party led by Benjamin Disraeli, who assumed the position of prime minister. However, six years later the Liberal Party won the 1880 general election and Gladstone took back leadership of the government, a position he held twice thereafter. 

In a splendidly gilded palace, over 5,000 miles away from London and the center of the British Empire, a despotic king sighed sympathetically upon learning of the defeat of Gladstone in the 1874 election. “Then poor Ga-la-sa-tong (Gladstone) is in prison, I suppose. I am sorry for him.” This was King Mindon, whom the former Chief Commissioner of British Burma Albert Fytche praised as “one of the most enlightened monarchs that has ever sat on the Burmese throne”. However, in the eyes of this enlightened king, a defeat in an election and fall from political power meant complete devastation for a politician, and could mean ending up in jail. 

The king’s statement reflects a “zero-sum” thinking on politics that is embedded deeply in the political culture of Myanmar and which still persists to this day. “Political zero-sum thinking” rarely views politics as a “developmental process” but as a dog-eat-dog game in which a win for one player incurs total losses for another player. Therefore, electoral defeat and the subsequent loss of power is unbearable for political actors.

When the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lost to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Party in the 2020 general election, the generals and retired generals of the Myanmar military easily relapsed into that “political zero-sum thinking”. They believed their nemesis, the NLD, and its repeated electoral victories were tantamount to an irretrievable loss of long-held power that could be reversed only by abolishing the whole political game that they themselves had introduced. Shortly after the election, the military and the defeated USDP disputed the results of the 2020 election with unfounded allegations of electoral fraud. That electoral crisis led to the February 1 coup and the overthrow of the existing political system. This is not the first time in the modern history of Myanmar that the military has disrespected and scrapped election results.

Elections at Gunpoint

In 1947, just prior to the then Burma’s independence, veteran politician Dr. Ba Maw prophesied that “it is not elections that are going to decide the future of Burma [Myanmar], but the gun”. Dr. Ba Maw’s ominous prophecy proved prescient. The politics of post-independence Myanmar have not been shaped by electoral democracy, but by armed conflicts, army coups and autocratic rule by military strongmen. Brief honeymoon periods of electoral democracy have been gunned down by a military that has assumed a self-proclaimed role of guardianship by the force of arms. In hindsight, the parliamentary elections in post-independence Myanmar were marred by electoral fraud, assassinations and violence. Hugh Tinker wrote in his “The Union of Burma that, “political gangsterdom was no new factor” in the electoral history of Myanmar. “Violence had been exploited by politicians from the time of the first elections in 1922, and the [post-independence ruling party] Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) climbed to power through the cultivation of force and unrest.”

Soldiers deployed to crack down on anti-regime protesters in Mandalay in February. (The Irrawaddy)

It was in 1962 that the military first obliterated the electoral democracy of Myanmar. There have been a variety of explanations as to why the army staged their 1962 coup. The military’s official justification was the risk of the country breaking up. In fact, ever since the 1960 election, the idea for a coup was already circulating among senior officers. The late Maung Maung, a retired Brigadier General who played a key role in organizing the election, wrote in his “Caretaker Government of 1958-1960” about the fierce resistance of several senior officers against the transfer of power to U Nu’s victorious Union Party. 

Following a split in the ruling AFPFL in 1958, the military temporarily took over power as a “caretaker government” and then held an election in 1960. Several senior officers who were close to the Stable-AFPFL party led by U Ba Swe and U Kyaw Nyein, political rivals of U Nu, contemplated not transferring power to U Nu should he win the election. According to Maung Maung, army chief Ne Win himself was then “in favor of an outright coup d’état”. The leaders of the military and the political party backing the army were trapped in “political zero-sum thinking”. Consequently, despite a smooth power transfer after the election, the military launched an outright coup in 1962, and put an end to electoral democracy after less than two years. 

In 1990, the military once again disrespected and scrapped the results of an election that it staged. After the 1988 coup, the junta held a general election, the first multi-party election since 1960. The junta chief Saw Maung repeatedly pledged in his speeches that he would transfer power to the winning party, and have the army return to barracks before the poll. The military was highly confident that its proxy National Unity Party (NUP), the successor of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party that ruled the country from 1974 to 1988, would win the election. However, it was badly beaten by the NLD led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi even amidst numerous restrictions and repressions targeting opposition parties, primarily the NLD. The Election Commission formed by the junta officially announced the victory of the NLD on July 1, 1990, but the junta did not honor the results and disgracefully declined to transfer power to the winning party. Now, in 2021, a new generation of military officers are following in the footsteps of their forebears by disregarding the general will of the people and election results by overthrowing the elected civilian government. 

Politics as Process

It has been a year since the 2020 general election. Within that year, instead of post-pandemic normalization and economic recovery, the military’s coup has plunged the country into political, economic and social turmoil. The whole country is increasingly inundated with violence and armed conflicts. Bomb blasts, armed fighting and violence are occurring on a daily basis, while the death toll is on the rise nationwide. Myanmar is striding along the path to becoming a failed state, with the resurgence of large-scale armed conflicts, a widening security vacuum, an irrecoverable economic catastrophe, and even the risk of territorial fragmentation. With increasing international pressure and disassociation, the country has rapidly become a pariah state. Despite the country’s extremely devastating situation, the junta has shown no sign of backing down. A die has been cast for the military, and the coup leaders will do everything they can to remain in power. In contrast to the army’s historical claim of its role as a stabilizing force in Myanmar, the coup has obviously highlighted, as Andrew Nachesom said, that “the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] is a force of chaos, not stability”.

Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has been plagued by a series of bloody civil wars. Consequently, the state’s monopoly over violence and the state’s capacity to project centralized power in its entire territory has always been contested. Likewise, as a multi-ethnic country, the people of Myanmar do not share a common sense of national identity. “Incomplete state-ness and nation-ness” have been key problems in the Myanmar polity, and political elites have failed to establish a consensus on these problems throughout the country’s modern history. That has been exacerbated by military coups and authoritarian rulers who have attempted to impose their absolute control on the country by force of arms in lieu of negotiation and consensus. 

Following its prolonged rule, the then military regime loosened its grip on power in 2010 by organizing a sham election that year and initiating a political liberalization process. Indeed, Myanmar’s political opening had “birth defects” and, among others, two defects are very conspicuous – “hybrid regime” and “reserved domain of power” for the military. The political opening of 2010 was not designed as a march towards full-fledged democracy but rather as a military-dominated hybrid regime. The 2008 constitution structurally set up the hybrid regime, a power-sharing arrangement between the elected civilian authority and a military guardian. Besides, the controversial constitution enshrined several provisions that ensure “reserved domains of power” for the military. 

Anti-regime protesters in Yangon in February. (The Irrawaddy)

In this political context, elections alone are not enough to resolve the complicated and deep-rooted problems of Myanmar’s polity. Nevertheless, competitive elections with democratic qualities could create a legitimate political space in which state-building and nation-building could necessarily be undertaken through a series of negotiations and consensus. It is not a one-stop service, but a sophisticated process that has to be patiently and gradually advanced with agreement and disagreement and flaws and corrections. During the NLD’s five-year reign, it is irrefutable that the civilian government had numerous flaws and pitfalls in administering the state. But, with the stability and legitimacy proffered by the election, it is feasible that the political process could progress slowly, if sometimes painfully. The military, with its fixation on “political zero-sum thinking” has not been willing to go through that political process. They cruelly killed off the political process and rolled back the political space.  

“Electoral Politics” versus “Gun Politics”

A year after the 2020 election, the Union Election Commission (UEC), formed by the junta, held a three-day meeting with political parties to discuss changing the electoral system from the current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system to one of proportional representation (PR). Due to the lack of the legitimacy of the junta-appointed UEC, 53 out of some 90 political parties, mostly pro-military parties and small parties, attended the event, but major parties, such as the NLD, Shan National league for Democracy, and Arakan National Party, did not. 

In that meeting, the chief of UEC said that the current FPTP system is outdated and unequal, and that the PR system could bring opportunities to minority parties, ethnic parties, women, and individual representatives. The proposal to change the FPTP system to the PR system was rejected by the USDP-controlled Parliament in 2014, and then the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that transformation of the electoral system to PR was unconstitutional. However, after seizing power, the junta began its efforts to change the electoral system. Following the meeting with political parties on February 26, 2021, around three weeks after the coup, the UEC asked the political parties to provide their input on the PR system. The winning party of the 2020 election, NLD, rejected the idea of changing the electoral system, and major ethnic parties agreed with them. In late August, the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, exposed the junta’s plan to introduce the PR system, and then the UEC stepped up efforts to switch the electoral system. Under the 2008 constitution, the PR system served to favor the military that already retains 25 per cent of all seats in the national legislatures, and it is definitely one of the military’s principal schemes to sustain its grip on power.

Nevertheless, even if the PR system is introduced, it seems inconceivable for the junta to conduct elections in the time frame it has promised. Despite initially declaring a one-year emergency, the junta chief later said that the provisions of the state of emergency would be accomplished and elections held in August 2023. Within six months of the coup, the junta extended its rule for an extra year and half. The security and stability of the country seriously deteriorated, and it is highly unlikely that Myanmar will return in the near future to a stabilized security environment suitable for organizing successful elections. With the junta currently struggling to run the basic administrative mechanism, managing over 40,000 polling stations across the country would be completely out of question. In addition, the military throughout its history has never loosened its grip on power while in a frail and vulnerable position. The generals believe that only they are capable of getting the country back to normalcy, and, in a volatile situation, transferring power to civilians, even if they were generals who switched their uniforms for civilian attire, would be a nail in their coffins. Therefore, it will be a miracle if the generals keep their promise to conduct an election at the assigned time.

Even if the election is organized, the people would not be willing to participate and so provide legitimacy to polls staged by the military. There is no guarantee that the military will honor the results of the next election. In the past, the generals reiterated that the design of the 2008 constitution and its enshrined prerogatives for the military were the guarantee against a possible coup. However, the military has no compunction about returning to the zero setting if it dislikes the outcome of any election. 

Ultimately, the people believed firmly that the military stole their election with the coup. In the protests following the takeover, the people have addressed the military generals with placards stating “Respect our vote”. But the people have been confronted with bullets for requesting respect for their ballots, and eventually driven to the inevitable conclusion that they also have to take up guns to reclaim their electoral rights. In this way, the military’s coup brought the curtain down on electoral politics. One year after the 2020 elections, “gun politics” has become the only game in town in Myanmar. 

Ye Myo Hein is the executive director of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies and a fellow with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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