Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s High-Risk Election

Aung San Suu Kyi’s dangerous gamble to push ahead with a controversial election as a second wave of COVID-19 hits Myanmar hard. 

Tom Fawthrop
This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

Myanmar’s High-Risk Election

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi raises the flag of the National League For Democracy party during a ceremony to mark the first day of election campaigning at the party’s temporary headquarters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

In Myanmar, the virulent second wave of COVID-19, which has turned the locked-down commercial capital of Yangon into a ghost city, poses a growing risk. Now there are rising questions about the credibility of pushing through with November’s general election in the time of a pandemic.

Medical authorities are struggling to cope with between 1,000-2000 new cases each day and health experts say Myanmar’s public health system is now at breaking point. From a once comfortable position of only 374 confirmed cases on August 16, confirmed cases have now skyrocketed to 32,351 and 765 deaths just two months later.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) government and their Union Election Commission (UEC) has responded with major restrictions on election campaigning – banning rallies and mass meetings – while conveying a strong aversion to any serious debate over the option of postponement.

This year’s election campaign has already been curtailed beyond all recognition by essential COVID-19 guidelines clamping down on public rallies and meetings and imposing travel restrictions. In September, 24 opposition parties called for a postponement, a proposal that was peremptorily dismissed by the ruling NLD.

For a great many voters, their paramount concern is staying safe. Avoiding any exposure to the virus has outpaced interest in the November election. But it is also undeniable that there are millions of die-hard Aung San Suu Kyi followers who believe they must win the election for “Mother Suu,” leader of nation and chair of the NLD. They are expected to faithfully show up at polling stations, whatever the risk of the virus spreading further.

Public Health and Postponement

During the last few weeks, Myanmar ‘s infection rates and fatalities have soared. Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, vice chair of the Yangon Region Coordination on Disease Control and Treatment Committee, has described their mission as “waging a war on COVID-19″ while others have warned of public health services in danger of being overwhelmed. The primary cause of the second wave currently gripping Myanmar is still unknown, according to Zaw Wai Soe.

By mid-October, Myanmar had the highest case positivity rate in Southeast Asia, and the second highest in the the broader Indo-Pacific region (surpassed only by Nepal).

In spite of the worsening COVID-19 crisis, neither the UEC nor the NLD have wavered in their dogged refusal to consider a postponement. No debate has taken place on the merits, disadvantages, and contingencies of moving the election date. This leaves Myanmar with no Plan B should surging COVID-19 cases abort the election in the final weeks.

If Myanmar were to postpone, it would not be alone. Many countries have already postponed national or local elections in 2020, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Romania, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and the U.K. Two-thirds of all countries scheduled to hold elections in 2020 have decided to postpone them.

On the other hand, South Korea showed with its parliamentary election on April 15 that an election can be safely conducted for voters. But South Korea had careful planning and strict precautions in place: temperature checks on all voters, protective gear for polling-station workers, and separate voting stations outside of hospitals for the infected.

Myanmar is far from being in the same league of preparedness as South Korea, with its well-funded public health system. Most importantly, South Korea was past the peak of COVID-19 cases by April 15 when the election took place, having contained the virus by using comprehensive testing and contact tracing. But there is no indication from the latest WHO figures for Myanmar that the country is even close to a peak.

The UEC measures for polling day will include an increased number of polling stations (50,000, up from 40,000) to provide a greater degree of social distancing and staff wearing personal protective gear. Voters will be instructed to wash their hands before casting a ballot. All this can help to reduce potential infection, but falls far short of South Korea’s comprehensive regime.

Sri Lanka, with a socio-economic profile much closer to that of Myanmar, significantly postponed elections twice because of COVID-19.  Eventually, with additional COVID-19 safeguards in place, a general election was finally held in August.

Public health expert Dr. Tin Myint (currently in Canada) told The Diplomat in early October, “If people are practicing all the UEC guidelines they need not postpone the election right now, but if the pandemic becomes worse and out of control in the coming weeks, the government should consider postponing it for four to six weeks.”

The Myanmar government and the UEC have batted away the call by 24 opposition parties, including the pro-military USDP, for a postponement. Among the 24 were a number of new independent parties, including the People’s Party, headed by former 88 Generation student leader U Ko Ko Gyi; the People’s Pioneer Party, chaired by the wealthy gem tycoon Daw Thet Thet Khine; and the activist Democratic Party for a New Society.

In the absence of any public debate the government finally provided some explanation to local media on September 17. NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt claimed, “Postponing the election when it is uncertain how the situation might develop in the future, will simply result in more problems including a political crisis on top of the current public health and economic problems.”

This speculative comment about a hypothetical political crisis is understood by observers to indicate concern by some NLD senior figures about the fragile state of democracy. There is fear that any postponement of the polls would be a god-send to the pro-military USDP.

The 2008 Constitution requires a new government to assume office by February 2021. Thus any postponement beyond February could perhaps trigger political instability and a constitutional crisis.

However, this scenario would not come into play if the opposition parties accepted a four to six week postponement, with polling day arranged prior to January 31.

Spokesman Myo Nyunt, however, argued, “Delaying the election even by one and a half months won’t make the situation better. That’s why we believe we should hold the election if things are not getting worse.”

In fact, in the three weeks since that NLD statement, the COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar has gotten a lot worse.

An underling NLD concern is the current uneasy balance between the weak civilian government of Win Myint and the military, who still retain control over three key ministries: Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

But this projection of a potential “political crisis” is not well-founded according to Jason Gelbort, a legal consultant working in Myanmar. “I do not believe there is a reason to expect greater military control if the elections are delayed, and the UEC has the legal power to postpone elections for reasons of natural disaster,” he said.

Controversial Election

This election is an important milestone as Myanmar’s second general election based on a multi-party democracy. The first such election, in 2015, resulted in a landslide victory for the NLD. But this COVID-19-contoured election is already shaping up to be controversial, with its democratic credentials eroded by a declining human rights situation, the revival of media censorship, and well-documented crimes against ethnic Rohingya people.

A significant part of the population in ethnic states will be disenfranchised, with the UEC admitting that that polling stations will be not set up in Rakhine, Kayin, Kachin, Shan and Chin states where the civil war continues. Ceasefire offers from several ethnic armed organizations have not been acted on by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military.

Thant Myint-U, the author of “The Hidden History of Burma,” recently said in a tweet that the November election could be “deeply flawed,” adding that it “won’t help Myanmar address any of its big challenges: violent conflict, climate change, inequality and underdevelopment.”

Even if the UEC COVID-19 protective measures are rigorously implemented at the polling stations, there is still a generalized concern about the wisdom of holding an election during the time of a raging pandemic.

By rejecting any possibility of a postponement, is the Myanmar government acting on the basis of best medical advice, or acting primarily on political calculations and the best interests of the NLD?

Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi is unshakeable in her determination to go ahead with election, telling her supporters that “the election is more important for Myanmar’s future than the fight against COVID-19” in an online meeting with NLD members in Kayah, Kachin, and Kayin states, as reported in the Myanmar Times.

That statement is at total odds with one of Myanmar’s prominent health experts. Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, the director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Unit, asserted back in September that public health is more important than political campaigning, especially with the health system in Yangon being stretched to its limits. “Don’t be careless as the Grim Reaper is within an arm’s length,” she warned.

Aung San Suu Kyi in her electioneering campaign mode is perhaps not the best person to be chairing the Yangon Coordinating COVID-19 Prevention Control and Treatment Committee.

If there is no postponement, then NLD is almost sure to emerge as the winner of a COVID-19 marred and deeply-flawed election. But the NLD government could also lose its claim to legitimacy if a critical mass do not accept the polls as a free and fair election. Post-election bitterness will only serve to undermine efforts to bring COVID-19 under control.