Myanmar’s national elections on November 8 consolidated majority rule under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), but it also exposed numerous simmering faultlines.
The election simultaneously reveals Myanmar’s internal divisions along ethnic and religious lines and shows that, externally speaking, Myanmar’s international position has shifted since the heady days of the “Burmese spring” in 2011 when the country first emerged from decades of military rule.
The NLD won a resounding popular vote, enjoying even greater results than expected. It overturned key seats in central Myanmar controlled by the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and performed adequately in ethnic minority states, where coalitions of smaller ethnic political parties struggled to amass broad support.
The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, an election monitoring group, declared “no major reported incidents” of fraud, voter intimidation, or violence on election day. Overall voter turnout was higher than expected, which is a positive sign for Myanmar democracy. However, the government did little to prevent crowded lines at polling stations around the country amidst a resurgent Covid-19 epidemic, mainly in urban areas like Yangon, the former capital.
Still, the election can hardly be described as entirely free and fair.
Ethnic minorities and the military
In the run-up to election day, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission disqualified a number of candidates due to citizenship concerns. These decisions disproportionately affected Muslims, many of whom reside in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, where the military carried out mass violence in 2017, leading to the expulsion of nearly 800,000 refugees mostly belonging to the Rohingya ethnic minority Muslim group.
Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist Bamar ethnic majority have little sympathy for the plight of the Rohingya, and ethnic and religious identity has largely united the country against Muslims. Nevertheless, the NLD allowed two Muslim candidates, both lifelong party members, to run in elections, and both seem to have won seats in Parliament.
While the Bamar majority mostly endorse the National League for Democracy with unbridled enthusiasm, many have also taken the military’s side in the country’s bloody campaign against the Rohingya as well as its myriad conflicts with other armed ethnic minority groups around the country’s periphery. Those loyalties are sometimes at odds, though the military-aligned opposition USDP, which held power from 2011-2016, has little support nationally outside of military quarters. According to Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the armed forces still hold a quarter of all seats in the Union Parliament and local state legislatures.
The NLD tried unsuccessfully in 2019 to challenge the military’s grip on political power, as the Constitution also requires a 75% vote to amend constitutional provisions, thereby guaranteeing the army a de facto veto over reforms. In its long road to wresting control from the military, the civilian leadership under State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has tread a careful path.
In particular, Suu Kyi has refrained from standing up to the armed forces when she deems it too risky. At times, this has meant taking the military’s side, whether in a calculated ploy to build political capital or genuine disinterest in its human rights violations. Most notably, she went to The Hague in late 2019 to defend Myanmar against accusations that its security forces had carried out crimes against humanity and genocide against the Rohingya.
It would seem her high-risk international gambit was only half successful, however. She accrued much of the international condemnation that the military rightly deserved, while she bolstered her own political legitimacy at home with citizens who felt the international community misunderstood Myanmar’s domestic situation.
Myanmar and 'negative neutralism'
In the wake of the 2017 Rohingya refugee crisis, Myanmar became something of a pariah to the Western community of democracies. Myanmar in 2011 had reached out to the West in an attempt to hedge against overreliance on China, its traditional patron, neighbour to the north, and largest trading partner. In the past few years, Naypyidaw has once again come to rely uneasily on Beijing’s patronage, aid, and diplomatic protection. However, it has also deepened ties with regional partners such as India, Japan, Singapore, and Korea, in an attempt to diversify its foreign relations.
Nevertheless, Myanmar’s foreign policy appears more reactive than proactive. Rather than the outward-looking diplomacy of the previous administration (2011-2016), Myanmar now seems to embrace a style of Cold War “negative neutralism,” as it did during the competition between east and west of yore.
Looking forward, the NLD’s victory spells continuity rather than change. While the party has attempted to reform the 2008 military-drafted constitution, it is uncertain how civilian leaders can effectively broker a compromise with the powerful armed forces.
At age 75, it is unlikely Aung San Suu Kyi will run again in the next election in 2025, so she will almost certainly put in place a successor to carry the country’s democracy movement forward after her tenure. However, democratic reforms have stalled or taken a step backward, and for the time being Myanmar can best be described as an illiberal democracy with signs of entrenched autocratic rule.
For the foreseeable future, the biggest challenges will be the same that the NLD listed prioritised in its 2015 election manifesto but has failed to achieve: negotiating peace with the country’s myriad ethnic armed groups and finding a modicum of power sharing with numerous ethnic minority political parties that feel disenfranchised by centralised NLD rule and the ethnic Bamar majority.
Whether Myanmar can navigate these multiple intersecting faultlines depends on the willingness of a range of stakeholders to compromise in a culture that encourages winner-take-all leadership.
Banner image: Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's face appears on a sticker promoting her National League for Democracy party. Source: Adam Jones/Flickr