Myanmar is preparing for parliamentary elections on Nov. 8, posing a major test of the government’s reform program and potentially producing significant shifts in the country’s political landscape. Although the political structures created by the military constitution of 2008 and many of the conditions that govern these elections give the government party an advantage, the opposition is buoyed by the opportunity to campaign relatively freely compared with past experience.
Myanmar’s transition from military rule to representative democracy has been complicated by deep-rooted political and economic interests, religious and ethnic fissures, and difficult negotiations with an array of armed groups to settle decades-long internal conflicts. Still, the conduct of this year’s elections in Myanmar is likely to show an improvement over that of 2010, which produced the current government. The 2010 elections were far from "free and fair," as the military junta was still in place and dictated the terms of the voting to the election commission.
This time, the primary responsibility for the elections is in the hands of the Union Election Commission, rather than the generals, and the office has pledged to run "free and fair" elections to the extent possible. The opportunity for the opposition to campaign relatively freely allows them to entertain the hope of gaining a plurality of votes in the parliament. This could give them a strong voice in the next government, opening a wider door to reform.
In the weeks leading up to the elections, security threats have been held to a minimum, with police and the Union Election Commission responding relatively effectively to conflict situations. The police remain concerned, however, about the potential for post-election conflict and instability if election results are contested, particularly in urban areas. The election commission and the Myanmar Police Force, for the first time, have developed a coordinated strategy to reduce the risk of electoral violence.
Most of the violence occurring during the election campaigning that began in September has arisen in ethnic minority areas at the hands of local militia. While there was a serious machete attack on an NLD member of parliament and his colleagues in Yangon, the candidate is already back on the campaign trail with a police escort. An apparent attempt to foment communal violence in Malamyaing over ethnic and religious differences did not succeed.
In an effort to reduce the risks of violence, various government agencies, including police, the elections commission, administrative officials, and the military, have established special security structures for the elections:
- Election Security Management Committees (ESMCs) in all states and regions across the country that are designed to coordinate election security operations among related government ministries at the national and regional level;
- Rapid-reaction units of the Myanmar Police Force that are designed to deploy at a distance and avoid a heavy police presence in the vicinity of the polling stations that might intimidate voters; and
- Unarmed “Special Police,” formed especially for the election and assigned to each polling station to assist voters and ensure no individuals attempt to disrupt the voting. If security problems arise, the special police will alert the nearest rapid-reaction unit of the Myanmar Police Force to send help.
The Myanmar Police Force, consisting of local units in each of the country’s seven states and seven regions, was created in 1995 and is about 93,000-strong, according to Interpol. The 40,000 Special Police, hired temporarily for the elections, have been recruited from local communities and trained to adhere strictly to limited policing functions. These police are not armed with either guns or truncheons and are prohibited from arresting anyone. They are trained to support civilian polling station supervisors and alert regular police to any security threats.
In an unprecedented step, the Myanmar Police Force has held roundtable dialogues with political parties to explain in detail how the security structures will operate during the election process. Police officials clarified the recruitment and role of the “Special Police,” in order to dispel popular concern that they might be used to intimidate voters.
The force also shared with political parties the code of conduct that was developed for police security operations during the elections. The code covers the full range of security concerns, such as respecting the rights ofpolitical parties protecting the physical integrity of election stakeholders, preventing interference or politicization of the police, proactively deterring the use of religious or ethnic incitement, and safeguarding the right of citizens to lawfully object to obstacles in the voting process.