The head of Myanmar’s military junta is talking increasingly about holding national elections next year despite the near certainty that prevailing conditions would make a democratic result impossible. Even if General Min Aung Hlaing was pondering a good-faith effort — which he is not — the country’s political and security situation would likely preclude anything more than a fig leaf outcome. So, the dictator is still mulling whether elections would benefit the regime. Meanwhile, he is laying the groundwork for a sham process to make himself president and cement military rule. Though the nature of these schemes should be obvious to the international community, many view the proposed vote as the most realistic path to stability and democratically elected government. That hope is badly misplaced.

Protesters shout at security forces from behind a makeshift barrier in the Thaketa Township of Yangon, Myanmar, March 28, 2021. (The New York Times)
Protesters shout at security forces from behind a makeshift barrier in the Thaketa Township of Yangon, Myanmar, March 28, 2021. (The New York Times)

Min Aung Hlaing himself has voiced concern that Myanmar’s instability may make it difficult to hold any elections. While he might put it differently, military bombardment has caused massive destruction of infrastructure in much of the country and the refusal of a large majority of citizens to participate in the military’s scheme may well make even a bogus process untenable. Furthermore, elections within the junta’s suggested timeframe would only be feasible in the relatively small parts of the country under tight military control.

Appearing to work on two tracks, Min Aung Hlaing is borrowing from the play book that his military predecessor, General Than Shwe, used for the 2010 elections to stave off international pressure and divide the resistance movement. But the junta chief claims to be even more effective than Than Shwe, eviscerating the democratic opposition represented by the National League for Democracy (NLD); setting the stage for a massive victory by the military’s proxy party to secure the presidency; and promising changes to the military constitution to contain ethnic political forces, especially the ethnic armed groups, from joining the resistance.

Despite all this, many in the international community see positive potential for Myanmar in the proposed elections. It is fair to ask how any of these conditions — much less all of them in concert — could meet the international standards for a “free and fair” process that these actors otherwise uphold.

In our view, the only real hope for a return to political stability in Myanmar lies in the vision of democratic federalism laid out by the resistance and supported by most of the population. To make such a system a reality, international leaders will need to support Myanmar's disparate resistance forces. It will not be easy, but it is the only real and viable avenue to restoring elected governance and stability in the country.

Manipulating Election Rules and Other Roadblocks

The obstacles the junta has set up to prevent a remotely democratic election are essentially insurmountable.

The junta’s Union Election Commission is now chaired by the same individual who manipulated rules in the 2010 parliamentary balloting to ensure an overwhelming victory by the military-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Min Aung Hlaing has reached out to ethnic organizations about changing the election rules to proportional representation so that it will be easier for smaller parties to win in their areas. It remains to be seen, however, if this could be done before the elections or would require a constitutional change afterwards.

Min Aung Hlaing’s most important move to ensure his grip on power is the evisceration of the key opposition party, the NLD. Its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been jailed and charged with a variety of manufactured crimes that could put her in prison for the rest of her life. Most other senior NLD elected officials have met a similar fate and many more have been imprisoned or killed outright by the forces of the junta’s governing body, the State Administrative Council (SAC).

What is left of the NLD would be unlikely to venture into junta-run elections because of the intensifying revolution. Major ethnic democratic parties, such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, have vowed not to participate in junta elections. This ensures a clear field for the military proxy party and a parliament with no advocates of democratic reform.

Another feature of the elections that international observers should watch is the cohort of newly retired generals who now sit atop the party; they will undoubtedly run for election and win. It is quite likely that some of them could be found guilty of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity some day in an international court for their role in the devastation and death the military has dealt the civilian population since the coup.

A Recipe for Further Violence and Instability?

If the elections were held in 2023, as suggested, the country would still be in turmoil, with a variety of non-state armed forces engaged in open battle with the military and SAC-sponsored militias. Other SAC officials and supporters would no doubt remain targets of the resistance forces, and the elections themselves could present an even richer target, with both election officials and candidates for parliament added to the mix. This possibility has clearly not escaped the SAC leadership as they ponder how to carve out areas of the country where elections could be conducted.

Min Aung Hlaing has even floated the idea of re-adopting the 1952 model of election sequencing in different parts of the country when widespread instability made nationwide balloting impossible. Some of the powerful ethnic armies that control large parts of their own states have signaled that they might refuse to allow national elections in their areas, leading inevitably to further pitched battles between the military and these forces. In sum, the proposed elections would only lead to further destabilization.

Should elections take place in some form and result in seating a new parliament and military government, the entire regime would probably need to sequester itself in Myanmar’s isolated capital, Naypyitaw, to ensure its security. There is no sign that the resistance forces are likely to be contained by the military by the time of the elections. On the contrary, they appear to be gaining strength and popular support as the military employs extreme violence in trying to pound the population into submission. The recent brutal military assault on a peaceful gathering in Kachin State is a case in point: major ethnic armed organizations and the civilian resistance forces have reacted with a single voice, vowing to bring down the army once and for all.

Sources of International Concern

The international community is fully justified in seeking to restore stability in Burma/Myanmar, not least because the destabilizing impact of the coup is now reverberating throughout the neighborhood.

The country has sharply deteriorated by every measure since the military overthrew the elected government in February 2021. Refugees have flooded across its borders to escape widespread conflict, the junta’s inability to govern, the economically ruinous reversal of previous reforms, and the military’s vicious assault on civilian communities it perceives as allied with the opposition. Foreign investment has dried up and is unlikely to return in the current hostile business environment. Hunger, poverty, disease and general hardship have engulfed the majority of the remaining population. To top off the brutality and suffering, the junta blockades humanitarian assistance from reaching the needy.

There is another effect of the post-coup breakdown causing increased concern in the region: the expansion and proliferation of lawless enclaves along Myanmar’s eastern border where organized crime is flourishing. Small rural towns have transformed into substantial cities that host a range of criminal enterprises. Within these ungoverned spaces, illicit activities include illegal gambling, crypto currency-based money laundering and fraudulent international investment scams staffed by young people lured from neighboring countries and held hostage by criminal gangs.

This phenomenon offers a stark vision of what can be expected from another military government in Myanmar.

The Opposition Plan for a Federal Democracy

The rebellion currently underway in Myanmar is not like previous revolts that the military easily brought under control when a majority chose to live with the status quo rather than face the unknown. This time, the younger generation is fully aware of the freedoms and opportunities offered by democratic governance. They are not alone in refusing — some of them using militant action — to return to military dictatorship; they also have strong support from their elders. The rebellion will not be placated with the junta’s engineered elections.

If a return to military government is not a viable route to stability, what would be more likely to produce a form of governance that could gain majority support and thus restore the country to relative calm?  

The answer lies with the plan for federal democracy that has been developed by the forces driving the so-called Spring Revolution. Although the road to the opposition’s desired outcome will be long and winding, it is the only viable means of bringing the country’s diverse and divided population together in an agreed union based on principles of federalism that will allow political, economic and social power to be widely shared by the civilian population.

Although this plan is still in its infancy, it represents the first real attempt in Myanmar’s history to unify the population behind a set of common goals. While the military historically secured its control by stirring ethnic division and animosity, the multi-ethnic resistance sparked by last year’s coup is dedicated to overcoming this legacy and to forming what the American founders called “a more perfect union” — one based on celebration of diversity, equality of opportunity and status, and pluralistic, elected governance.

Working through differences and past abuses will take a long time, no doubt. But it is a lodestar mission for those who are literally giving their lives to upend a military dictatorship. They must be supported.

The international community should not allow itself to be drawn into Min Aung Hlaing’s ruse of restoring stability through engineered elections. Rather it should stand firmly behind the resistance movement and find every possible means of providing it strong practical support and guidance. The strength that international unity can bring to a just cause is being amply demonstrated in Ukraine. It can work as well for Myanmar.

Ye Myo Hein is a visiting scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

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