Myanmar is now witnessing a crucial moment of its history. Amidst the second wave of COVID-19, the general election in November was hugely important for the country. What might it tell us about Myanmar’s slow transition from military dictatorship to democracy?
Beginning with a student-led uprising in 1988, Myanmar’s attempts to attain democracy have proven to be a hard-fought course. The uprising failed, but the hope was not completely deprived—an undaunted democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, rose to prominence. Her efforts to end the rule of the military junta changed the future of Myanmar fundamentally.
Among Burmese, popular indignation towards the military junta has persisted for years. However, this situation only started to deteriorate after 1962, when the founder and leader of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), Ne Win, came to power. Before 1962, Myanmar was one of the most prosperous countries in Asia, with a large influx of immigrants from other Asian countries. A large percentage of this population came from China, which was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution creating many refugees. Ne Win and BSPP shattered all the achievements – the predatory government seized other citizen’s property without any legitimate reason, and the economy declined rapidly. Myanmar people desperately longed for a new government to end the nightmare of military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi undoubtedly won support from the majority of the population. However, eliminating the military junta was not simple. Even after gaining support from the international world, the military junta was pressured to initiate general elections. In 2015, the National League Democracy (NLD), the democratic party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, took a landslide victory in just the second general election of the new multi-party democracy in 2015. In spite of the results, the military junta still holds significant power in governance, ensuring the influence of the NLD is as minimized by holding onto 25% of seats in the parliament and controlling several ministerial positions. This control makes it impossible to change the constitution without gaining approval from the military.
Apart from preventing the new government from altering the constitution, the military junta also actively prevents the election from being truly free and fair. Human Rights Watch claimed the election in Myanmar is “fundamentally flawed” because of the unequal party access to government media and the fact that people are cut off from access to knowledge about political activities. Besides, discrimination against Rohingya Muslim voters is also a noteworthy issue. However, the military junta is not the only group accused of this discrimination. Aung San Suu Kyi was severely criticized for not acting on the genocide to the Rohingya within Myanmar, undermining her reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and national leader.
While most people believe Myanmar’s road to democracy is filled with hope, some remain pessimistic. Thet Thet Khine, a member of parliament in the House of Representatives and former employee of Aung San Suu Kyi, tells Myanmar Times that Aung San Suu Kyi is a “control freak” and became a “bottleneck of the country”. As a result of this criticism, Thet Thet Khine‘s membership in the party was suspended. Thet Thet Khine ran in the 2020 general election under a new party, the People’s Pioneer Party (PPP). Unfortunately, her attempt to win a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw representing Yangon’s Mayangon township resulted in a crushing defeat, with winning less than a tenth of the votes won by her NLD rival. Despite the little popularity gained by PPP so far, it is worth noticing that in Myanmar, there have been attempts to challenge Aung San Suu Kyi’s authority. Thet Thet Khine has shown her determination to ensure a place for PPP in the domestic politics of Myanmar, as “there will be a transition period” when Aung San Suu Kyi’s age doesn’t allow her to contribute much any longer. Despite the reliability of Thet Thet Khine’s claim, the competence of the NLD as a ruling party is doubtable. NLD is young and inexperienced, as the idea of democracy is still relatively new in Myanmar. As a result, almost all political activities depend on Aung San Suu Kyi and her unshakable charismatic image as a fighter of democracy. To successfully complete the transition to democracy, the NLD faces external pressure from the military junta and additional pressure from internal conflicts as a new party inexperienced in dealing with the complicated domestic politics.
On the other hand, from a common citizen’s perspective, Myanmar’s future is still promising. According to local people’s observation, the city’s largest city is filled with a great amount of newly-constructed shopping centres with many foreign companies. As a result of the history of a closed economy, foreign investors were previously skeptical about putting money into Myanmar. Nowadays, with the opening up of the economy, citizens have an overwhelming feeling that the overall living standard has improved. Besides, with the democratization of the state, citizens have seen increased measures to protect freedom of speech, giving rise to open discussion of government and politics. Moreover, corruption has been significantly reduced. According to the corruption perceptions index, Myanmar ranks 130 out of 198 countries in 2019, which is an improvement on their ranking in 2014 (156 out of 198 countries) – before the NLD won the election. As for political participation, a 64-year-old citizen of Yangon I spoke to suggested that she feels the public enthusiasm for voting is high, as people feel strongly encouraged to vote, particularly in support of Aung San Suu Kyi’s reform. According to IFES election guide, the average turnout has reached 78.34%, which is a promising result.
In general, Myanmar’s 2020 elections are worth the attention of people around the world, providing us with insights into how this critical transformation of ideology has taken place in the country. A future of a fully democratized Myanmar might still be distant, but with politicians like Aung San Suu Kyi, gradually improving of economic competitiveness, improved civil rights protections, and a growing civic consciousness, Myanmar’s road to democracy is by no means out of reach.
Edited by Zachary Beresin
Photo credits: “Miami – Wynwood: Wynwood Walls – Wynwood Walls – Shepard Fairey’s Aung San Suu Kyi” by Wally Gobetz Published December 20, 2011. This work was sourced under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license. No changes were made.