On Sunday – 8th November – Myanmar will go to the polls. In essence this is the first ‘real’ election since 1990. It is only the second time since 1960 and the third if you count 2010, which has seen Myanmar move from a military junta led government to a civilianised parliamentary system. More than 90 parties will be contesting seats for the two houses of parliament as well as the 14 state and regional assemblies.
Given the fact that the elections in 2010 were neither free nor fair, many worry that these elections will also be tampered with. This is of course a possibility, but the fact that international observers, including British and EU observers as well as American NGO the Carter Centre, are on the ground, will mean that any ballot box stuffing will be documented. What is more important are the issues that lie beneath the surface of these elections.
Firstly, there has been an ongoing controversy with regard to voter lists. Citizens were asked to check and correct their details on the published voter list and some have found their names missing or other details incorrect. In some cases it has been more difficult than it should have been to get these amended. It is still possible that some will find out on the day that they cannot vote, especially if they were not able to check their details on time.
Secondly, there is the issue of religion that has crept in by the back door. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country. The Sangha – or Buddhist monkhood – has never been allowed to be involved in politics and monks and nuns are not allowed to vote. However an ultranationalist Buddhist movement called Ma Ba Tha (Society for the Protection of Race and Religion), which is led by monks, has gained traction in the last three years, fuelling anti-Muslim feelings across the country. The influence of Ma Ba Tha has not only resulted in four new race and religion protection laws being passed last year (which clearly discriminate against Muslims) it has also resulted in Muslim electoral candidates not being able to contest their seats. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) did not allow for its three sitting Muslim MPs to stand again in their constituencies, allegedly due to citizenship issues. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) removed all Muslim candidates from its lists, so as to not offend the conservative Buddhist electorate. Not one of the 1051 NLD candidates is a Muslim. Other Muslim candidates, including from Muslim parties in Muslim majority areas were removed by the Union Election Commission based on citizenship issues, leaving only a handful of Muslim candidates in smaller parties. The result might be a parliament without a single Muslim MP, despite the 5 million Muslim citizens.
And then there is the issue of the Muslims who are not citizens. Self-identifying as Rohingya, the minority is concentrated in northern Rakhine state. Some would qualify for citizenship if the 1982 citizenship law had been properly applied; others who are more recent migrants might not. However the controversy is that in 2010 many were holders of temporary citizenship documents know as “white cards” and they were allowed to vote. In fact the USDP courted these votes in 2010, trying to defeat the local ethnic Rakhine party. White cards were recently declared unconstitutional by Myanmar’s constitutional tribunal, and all white card holders were disenfranchised overnight. The NLD has not spoken up for this minority in fear of being branded foreigner friendly.
Other issues include the representation of ethnic people. Around 38% of Myanmar’s population are ethnic minorities and there are a large number of ethnic parties. In 2010 the ethnic MPs formed the first legal opposition to the USDP dominated parliament. Now that the NLD is fielding candidates in all ethnic majority areas, many locals fear the vote might be split. The NLD has always maintained that democracy is their first priority and ethnic grievances can be addressed later. Given the protracted and ongoing peace process with the ethnic armed groups, a sizable ethnic representation is essential so as to represent the ethnic civilian voice. A parliament dominated by Bamar voices will not be good for the peace.
As we approach election day, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly said that she intends to govern, even if she cannot be president. She has also promised to ‘make a fuss’ if she feels the elections are not free and fair. Her expectation seems to be that of a landslide victory like the NLD commanded in 1990. The NLD is expected to be the largest party, however there are others to vote for, and there is disillusionment in some areas with what amounts to authoritarian internal NLD politics. It is possible that the NLD will be disappointed with the actual number of seats that they win, however unless they actually lose they would not able to mobilise this for political action.
After the elections and the transfer of power in the New Year the challenge will be for the winning party to develop relations with the military as well as unite a country that is divided along ethnic and religious lines. This will be difficult no matter what the parliamentary make up is.