On February 1, 2021, a four-month stalemate between Myanmar’s State Councilor and longtime leader of the National League of Democracy Party (LDP) Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hliang, leader of the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), erupted into a hostile (albeit bloodless) military takeover, resulting in the arrests and detention of Suu Kyi and hundreds of other politicians, government officials, members of the press, and suspected dissidents and political activists. A full communications blackout has been in place (Internet, television, and phone service) for multiple days.
For a country that has spent much of their history either at war, under control of a colonial power, a vicious Leninist regime, local armed ethnic conflicts, or an entrenched military authoritarian bureaucracy, establishing any semblance of democracy has been an arduous and contentious ten year undertaking.
A Fledgeling Democracy
According to the USDP and Tamatdaw – the Burmese military – over 8.4 million alleged acts of election fraud took place during the course of the November 8th election. While the Myanmar Union Election Commission and foreign observers vehemently disputed this claim, their protests weren’t enough to convince the USDP of the validity of election results prior to the first meeting of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s parliament. It consists of the 168-seat Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House of Parliament) and 330-seat Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House of Parliament), with the newly re-elected Aung San Suu Kyi presiding over the LDP majority. One of the most urgent parliamentary matters from the prior legislation to be resolved was to review clauses in the controversial 2008 Burmese constitution that allows an automatic 25% quota of legislative seats to be held by appointed military officers, ensuring that new laws or amendments to older laws can’t happen without their cooperation.
Something that has been overlooked in all the tumult about coups and junta and cabinet reshuffling is just how new the concept of free or fair elections is to the Burmese. Unlike most military regimes, which last around seven years on average, Myanmar’s Tamatdaw has maintained power for decades, is difficult to influence or destabilize by outside countries, and rapidly adapts to dynamic or fluid situations. Simply put, there’s no practical way to extricate the Tamatdaw’s military influence, personnel, or surveillance from civil society. As a matter of fact, Burma’s much-lauded 7 step “Roadmap To Democracy” was established in 2003, by (of course) General Khin Nyunt, a former military intelligence officer who was Prime Minister at the time.
Even with a transition to civilian rule in 2010, the Tatmadaw is an integral part of the country’s governance, inextricably welded to every last aspect of civic participation. The military controls three ministries exclusively (Borders, Defense, and Home Affairs) and the General Administration Department, the massive domestic agency that oversees the lives of over 50 million people and 60,000 villages. Military conscription is mandatory, and the vast majority of officials in the townships and cities are retired soldiers.
Elections are under the purview of the GAD, conducted by the Union Election Commission (UEC) at the national level, and by local officials in each township. All citizens over 18 may vote, except for religious clerics and the Rohingya ethnic group, who aren’t considered citizens, and experience significant persecution by the Burmese government. For the 2020 election, Myanmar had 90 recognized political parties, almost 7,000 candidates who qualified to be on the ballot, and each voter was issued at least three ballot slips: one for the Pyithu Hluttaw, one for the Amyotha Hluttaw, and one for state/regional Hluttaw. Members of ethnic groups such as the Karen, Shan, or Mon also voted for designated Ethnic Representatives on a fourth ballot.
Conducting a free or fair election is difficult in a representative democracy. It’s virtually impossible in what amounts to an authoritarian military republic. Journalists were forbidden to report on anything even remotely offensive to the UEC or the Tatmadaw. Adding to the pressure, several provinces were so hard hit by COVID outbreaks that local election officials were begging the UEC for assistance with protective equipment and poll worker training. Political campaign ads could not air without prior approval of every single word in the ad. Many smaller political parties were censored or deregulated to the point of nonexistence. In the Shan district, a newly elected member of parliament, Htike Zaw, was shot to death a mere two weeks after his surprise victory.
The 34 pro-military parties, led by the USPD and General Min Aung Hliang, launched a pre-emptive campaign to find electoral fraud, demanding that the UEC prove that there was no fraudulent voting activity. Unexpectedly, the UEC returned fire, and reminded the parties that subverting the will of voters was a direct violation of the constitution. Between the pandemic and brutal armed clashes between local ethnic groups and the Tatmadaw, voting was actually canceled in nine townships and 152 wards/village tracts in Rakhine State, 192 village tracts in Kachin Stat, 53 village tracts in Kayin State, five townships and 139 wards/village tracts in Shan State, one village tract in Mon State, and 42 village tracts in Bago Region. It’s a testament to the bravery of the intrepid polling officials that there was an election in the first place.
The Coup and Civil Disobedience
Whispers that all was not well in Myanmar’s post-election period swirled around for most of January. Many foreign policy experts indicated that while a military backed coup was certainly possible, it wasn’t highly probable. The events of February 1st were a rude global wakeup call. Tatmadaw officers threatened to arrest most of the newly elected Hlattaw representatives. Yet in several stunning acts of civil disobedience, citizens, government officials, and public servants in medicine, law, construction, and education have taken democracy into their own hands. Many have called for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other high-ranking opposition party leaders.
On February 4, 70 lawmakers from the LDP defied their marching orders and decided to hold a makeshift “swearing in ceremony”. Despite directly disobeying the Tatmadaw’s command to leave the capital within 24 hours of the takeover, they were able to convince officials to allow them to stay in the guest quarters of the parliament building. Earlier in the week, a consortium of various Burmese political factions convened (in the most 2021 way ever – a Zoom meeting) in hopes of negotiating an unconditional ceasefire with the Tatmadaw.
What does the future hold for the future of elections in Myanmar? In response to the acts of civil disobedience, the Tatmadaw installed their own version of the election commission, charging them with an election “do-over”, to take place a year after the coup. It’s unclear whether the lower ranked election officials in the provinces and townships will comply or if they will risk their safety and refuse. As of this writing, news has trickled in at a snail’s pace. Facebook, Twitter, Viber and other social networks are currently throttled back to nonexistent, and the government has the ability to deactivate SIM cards on mobile phones. Several Western and Asian countries have threatened sanctions, and China seems less inclined to assist Myanmar than in previous years.