The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to win Myanmar’s general elections on November 8, but the 2020 race is much more hotly contested than 2015. The growing political frustration of the country’s non-Burma ethnic nationalities is fueling insurgencies and the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party—and its armed forces patrons—are criticizing the government and attacking the country’s feeble electoral institutions. The way Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities experience the process will have major implications for peacemaking efforts moving forward. USIP’s Jason Tower previews the elections, their effect on Myanmar’s civil war and peace process, and how COVID-19 has impacted the election process.

Burma election 2012

The 2015 election that brought the NLD to power was regarded by international observers as largely credible and transparent despite its flaws. What are the expectations for the 2020 polls?

The 2020 elections are taking place in a significantly different context. First, violent conflict has spiraled, particularly in Rakhine and Chin States, where the Arakan Army (AA) has rapidly gained strength and popularity. The government’s insistence on labeling the AA a terrorist group and the military’s failure to extend a cease-fire to the AA have resulted in levels of violent conflict that make organizing elections in much of Rakhine impossible. Consequently, the national electoral commission has shutdown polling locations there that will disenfranchise more than 1.1 million voters. Meanwhile, elections will continue in NLD strongholds in the south, so Rakhine parties will likely lose their voice in the state parliament. As the possibility of change through electoral politics shrinks, signs that the conflict will spread further south increase. In the week before the election, fighting broke out in the critical port city of Kyaukphyu close to the China-Myanmar pipeline project.

Second, criticisms of the Union Election Commission have expanded. The military publicly blasted the UEC’s performance last week, alleging “deficiencies never seen in previous elections.” While international organizations have noted that the UEC is partisan and cited its shortcomings, a public attack on the commission by the armed forces raises concerns that democratic practices could be undermined. It also creates a dangerous opening for political parties to question electoral outcomes and points to the risk of electoral violence. Over the past two weeks, multiple violent incidents around campaigns have resulted in two deaths. 

Finally, ethnic voters, who make up a third of the population, are more likely to vote for one of the 43 ethnic parties running candidates because the government has been slow to advance their rights. Those parties have high expectations for their electoral prospects this year. Yet, Myanmar’s “first past the post” system means ethnic parties are unlikely to win the parliamentary seats needed to play a role in forming the new government and their constituencies will probably be disappointed with the final outcome.

How has COVID-19 affected this year’s election?

The 2020 campaign season began amid a dramatic rise in COVID cases. Many parts of the country were locked down, although some of the 93 political parties and their supporters often ignored these rules. That forced other parties into the awkward position of having to decide whether to protect public health at the risk of falling behind in the polls.

There are also worries that fear of COVID—which has spiked ahead of the elections—will dampen turnout. While the government will make masks and hand sanitizer available for frontline election workers, there is still a reasonable chance that voting will help the spread of the virus in a country that has severely limited health resources. Exacerbating public fears, many polling stations are rumored to double as quarantine facilities.

The pandemic has also hampered elections observers. Myanmar’s international airports have been closed for commercial travel since March, making it difficult for foreign observer missions to organize and deploy. Further, the UEC’s initial resistance to the key domestic elections monitoring organizations such as the People's Alliance for Credible Elections significantly delayed preparations for local monitoring.  

After five years in power, the NLD is expected to win again. What challenges will the government face after the elections? What does this mean for Myanmar’s democratic transition?

Whoever wins will face a range of challenging issues. Most critical is ending the conflict in Rakhine State. A new government will need to think carefully about why previous peace efforts failed to address the underlying grievances of the ethnic nationality groups.

In terms of governance, the most pressing needs are constitutional reform, a formula for revenue sharing between the Union level and states and regions, and a process to dramatically increase the voices of all ethnic nationalities in governance and decision-making processes. Many of Myanmar’s political parties are now identifying these issues as top priorities in their platforms, with parties such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy taking the lead in outlining positions supporting rights and recognition of all nationality groups.

Equally critical will be managing the incursion of transnational criminal groups and the massive, illicit financial flows tied to them. Operating mostly along the Thai-Myanmar border, three transnational criminal networks have initiated vast unregulated cities to house illegal online gambling and other illicit businesses in partnership with corrupt militia groups—particularly the Karen border guard force, which reports to the military. These networks threaten to increase the influence and resources of corrupt armed actors while further undermining efforts to establish the rule of law and democratic governance.

Related to the gambling cities is the need to continue promoting sustainable development, including the further articulation of the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP). The current government has tried to align development projects with the plan, seeking to ensure that foreign direct investment supports national needs. While this represents a starting point, the government has yet to consult with the vast majority of Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities around MSDP, producing major gaps between the strategy and needs on the ground. Furthermore, foreign investors, particularly from neighboring countries, have aggressively begun massive infrastructure and industrial projects without concern for their impact on local conflicts.

How might the elections affect the country’s civil war and peace process?

All of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations will be watching electoral outcomes closely. To the extent the results leave ethnic parties out of the process, frustration will boost support for armed struggles over autonomy. That’s already happening in Rakhine and southern Chin States, driving AA recruitment even from other ethnic nationality groups. If those groups don’t see progress through formal political channels, armed elements across the country will likely respond—especially the AA’s close brotherhood allies in northern Myanmar.  

Peacemaking efforts are bound to be affected by electoral tensions between the military and government and the failure of either to take responsibility for flaws in the process, especially cancellation of the vote in so many townships. Ethnic nationalities’ parties and voters, as well as ethnic armed organization representatives, are likely to see the lack of coordination between the government and military as damaging their electoral prospects. Meanwhile, failures to coordinate with armed groups to stage elections in their areas have heightened tensions, missing an opportunity to build trust. Finally, Myanmar’s most oppressed group, the Rohingya, have been entirely disenfranchised, and a solution to the regional refugee crisis now appears to be further out of reach.

What effect might the elections have Myanmar’s international relations?

Myanmar will likely see continuity in its foreign policy regardless of the outcome. Tellingly, few parties have emphasized foreign affairs in their campaigns, perhaps with the exception of some ethnic parties raising concerns around the country’s relationship with China—which wields considerable influence on its civil conflicts and has advanced billions of dollars of contentious investments in the country. Concerns around transparency and the failure of projects to bring benefits to the local populations have featured in races in Kachin and Shan States.     

Post-elections, Myanmar will continue to face a difficult international environment. Open hostility between India and China—which already sparked a border conflict earlier this year—will place Myanmar in a difficult situation as both try to limit each other’s influence in the country. The flashpoint will undoubtedly be in Rakhine State, where a dramatic escalation in conflict could damage the interests of both sides.

Relatively speaking, stakeholders in China see that China’s connectivity plans for the Indian Ocean could easily pivot from Rakhine State to the Ayeyarwady region, while India’s cannot. China does have very high expectations for rapid, post-election advancement of its China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the government will need to manage these expectations. With respect to ASEAN, the failure to make any progress on Rohingya refugees will continue to sour relations, although some ASEAN states are exhibiting growing interest in working with Bangladesh to find an interim solution to the refugee crisis.

Potential areas to watch include greater involvement of Japan, Korea, and potentially Australia in an NLD second term. These countries have enhanced their engagement during COVID-19 and look to play significant roles vis-à-vis peace and development, potentially opening a path for Myanmar to reduce China’s overwhelming influence.

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