Like other nations dealing with armed conflicts, Myanmar faces destabilizing risks from the COVID pandemic. The country’s young democratic transition depends on a general election expected in November, yet the government and civil society are overburdened with the struggle against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, signs are growing that the army is using the COVID emergency to strengthen its influence over government and society. Preparing a fair, inclusive election amid this crisis poses the toughest test in years for Myanmar’s democratic transition—and the process must begin in earnest now.

Volunteers, many wearing masks to avoid spreading the COVID19 virus, sweep walkways at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist holy site in Yangon, Myanmar, in March. The virus’ spread has since led to the pagoda’s closure. (Minzayar Oo/The New York Times)
Volunteers, many wearing masks to avoid spreading the COVID19 virus, sweep walkways at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist holy site in Yangon, Myanmar, in March. The virus’ spread has since led to the pagoda’s closure. (Minzayar Oo/The New York Times)

Even without COVID, 2020 would be a challenge for Myanmar’s efforts to advance peace and democracy. The peace process to end the country’s many regional conflicts has failed, while the transition from military to fully democratic rule, have been making slow, difficult progress in recent years. Yet the partisan competition of elections almost inevitably complicates the negotiating processes of peacemaking. With nearly 100 political parties registered, many representing ethnic minorities from conflict areas, this election already is shaping up to be especially competitive.

Now the COVID pandemic is exacerbating the challenge of preparing elections. The public health crisis is diverting attention and capacities of national and local government administrations that are needed soon to prepare for elections. Myanmar’s civil society organizations, which play a vital role in educating voters through public workshops and meetings, are similarly overloaded by COVID. Civil society groups have stepped in to offer help to residents, distributing food staples or other essentials alongside religious organizations and local companies. Buddhist monks, Christian churches and Muslim leaders have offered their compounds as quarantine centers.

As in many countries, COVID has sharpened existing tensions and has fueled hate speech across communal lines. Those shifts, plus an escalation in fighting between the army and ethnic Rakhine insurgents in the country’s west, risk degrading the inclusiveness—and thus the perceived fairness—of the scheduled elections.

Military Influence, New Clashes

The COVID crisis has given Myanmar’s military a new opportunity to expand the political influence it has retained since ending formal military rule in 2011. Amid the effort to build a democracy, the armed forces have kept a powerful role in governance, for example by requiring the constitutional arrangement that guarantees them a quarter of seats in the national legislature. The military wields influence in public discourse, in part through its own newspaper and TV station, and through dozens of arrests and lawsuits against news organizations. Pro-military demonstrations have opposed reform plans by the civilian government that would reduce the military’s influence in the planned elections.

In response to the pandemic, the state formed a COVID19 Control and Emergency Response Committee, half of whose members are military-appointed officials, including the serving first vice president,  a former lieutenant general, U Myint Swe. The military has tried to focus public attention on its logistical services, offering its hospitals and facilities to help confront the pandemic, and its performance compared to the civilian authorities’ responses to COVID. The military has leveraged the COVID-19 response to reduce attention to its growing human rights violations in Rakhine State, and as a cover for its efforts to weaken influence of civilian government during the emergency response period.

The heightened fighting between Myanmar’s military and the armed groups has increased civilian casualties and uprooted thousands more people—in Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin and Shan states. Within Myanmar, nearly a quarter-million displaced people live “in camps or camp-like situations,” according to the United Nations.

A particular concern is this year’s escalated fighting in Myanmar’s west where, since 2016, what the military calls “clearance operations” uprooted and expelled more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingyas, who are Muslims. Those refugees are massed densely in neighboring Bangladesh, extremely vulnerable to COVID, which now has spread into what is the world’s most populous refugee settlement.

The latest fighting, in Rakhine and Chin states, is between Myanmar’s military and insurgents of the Arakan Army, drawn from the mostly Buddhist Rakhine ethnic group. The violence, including air strikes and shelling, has killed scores of people and forced tens of thousands from their homes, according to the United Nations. The military excluded its fight with the Arakan Army from a nationwide, 16-week ceasefire it announced this month to facilitate the suppression of the COVID pandemic. Burmese news media, and an independent assessment based on consultations with humanitarian workers in Rakhine, say the spread of fighting in the west risks leading to large areas being excluded from voting in November. Authorities have cut cellphone access to the internet for about 1 million people in the conflict area, which hampers work both to suppress COVID and to prepare elections.

The COVID pandemic multiplies the risks of political exclusion created by violent conflict. At the end of March, hundreds of local civil society groups voiced concern that COVID risks deepening the desperation and exclusion of marginalized communities such as minority groups and people displaced from their homes. It also warned against authorities using the COVID emergency to crack down on dissent.

2020 Elections: A Massive Lift

In the face of COVID, simply the logistics of elections are daunting. Government administrative departments, occupied with public health concerns, may have little ability to also coordinate election preparations, including even security. To meet the election authorities’ announced plans, the national police force would have to recruit and hire about 48,000 auxiliary police and quickly train them for election security. That task, massive under any circumstance, becomes more difficult as police also must enforce COVID restrictions.

A separate challenge is the preparation of voter lists. Election officials normally publish voter lists well in advance of election day, which lets civic groups and the various parties confirm their completeness. A delay in preparing the lists will risk undermining that step and weakening public confidence in the process. Meanwhile, the COVID-triggered shutdown of factories in China and Thailand that employ migrant workers from Myanmar has left tens of thousands of Myanmar’s citizens uncertain whether they will be at home or abroad when elections take place.

To reduce the risk of a chaotic, disputed election that deepens risks to Myanmar’s transition toward democracy, authorities in the country—with encouragement and support from the U.S. government and international partners—should take these steps:

  • Myanmar’s national elections authority, the Union Election Commission, should announce the election date as soon as possible to allow a start to formal election preparations and their adaptation to pandemic conditions. The commission should urgently convene government leadership and ministries, COVID response teams, police and security agencies to begin coordinating the needed preparations.
  • The election commission should quickly and broadly engage Myanmar’s civil society organizations to encourage and support all possible steps to educate and prepare citizens on the upcoming vote. Police should work closely with civil society groups as part of preparing election security provisions.
  • The armed forces and Rakhine insurgents should cease fire in Myanmar’s west, both to prevent COVID’s spread and to permit elections. The military and ethnic armed groups nationwide should sustain the cease-fire already announced.
  • Donors and international organizations should quickly coordinate their efforts to support a free, fair and inclusive election. Election preparations conducted recently in South Korea and currently in Sri Lanka offer examples of ways to safely conduct nationwide voting under the conditions of the COVID pandemic.

Kyi Kyi Seinn is a deputy country director for USIP in Myanmar.

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