Since independence the people of Myanmar have enjoyed very seldom taste of democracy. From 1962 to 2011 the military, led by General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d’état and the government had been under direct or indirect control by the military since then.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s largest political force has disbanded, signaling a further inward turn by the military as it works to maintain its hold on power by manipulating elections. Before the second anniversary of the February 1, 2021 military coup, the Junta started talking about elections in January of this year, wiping out the NLD’s triumph in the 2020 election that destroyed the USDP, a military proxy.
The new Political Parties Registration Law announced on January 26 by the country’s military-manned Election Commission, makes it difficult for opposition groups to mount a serious challenge to the army’s favored candidates. It sets conditions such as minimum levels of membership and candidates and offices that any party without the backing of the army and its cronies would find hard to meet, especially in the repressive political atmosphere. Under this law, existing parties got 60 days to re-register or be automatically dissolved. Out of the 92 parties before the coup, less than 63 had re-registered by the deadline. Among these 63 parties, 12 parties will launch election campaigns across the nation and 51 parties only in one region or state.
As the new law says inmates cannot be party members so the NLD would have needed to expel the party chair Suu Kyi, ousted President U Win Myint and some 80 of its leaders in prison to re-register. The NLD, thus did not register and dissolved on March 28. The law openly favors the USDP, which is the only other party with a presence across Myanmar’s majority Bamar-dominated regions.
Junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing promised a “free and fair” election, but if an electoral exercise under the auspices of the military was always going to be questionable, new election rules announced in late January removed all doubts that this was to be an election made by the junta for the junta.
What worries the Army most is Suu Kyi.’s overwhelming popularity, as established in the 2012 bye-elections two years after her release, then in the 2015 and 2020 elections. The party won more than four-fifth of the seats in the parliament in 2020, an increase over its 2015 triumph. The coup was triggered by fears that with her absolute majority, Suu Kyi might rewrite the military-drafted Constitution to exclude it from politics. Even with the NLD leader in jail since the the coup, the military is unsure about victory. The new laws seem aimed to write the NLD fully out of the equation.
According to the army’s own plans, the new polls were to be held by the end of July. However, in February, the military announced a six-month extension of the state of emergency, delaying the possible legal date for holding an election. It claimed that security could not be guaranteed and the military does not control large swaths of the country, where it faces widespread armed opposition to its rule.
“Amid the state oppression following the 2021 coup, no election can be credible, especially when much of the population sees a vote as a cynical attempt to supplant the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in 2020,” said a report issued Tuesday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank. The group also said, ‘elections would trigger escalated violence as the regime used polls as a pretext for intensifying its counter-insurgency operation and responded to any boycott with further repression’.
Rights groups warn the elections will not be free or fair in a country that has shut down independent media outlets and blocked opponents from standing, and fear the military’s atrocities will intensify as it seeks to entrench its power. It cautioned that the polls will almost certainly intensify the post-coup conflict, as the regime seeks to force them through and resistance groups seek to disrupt them, urging the National Unity Government (NUG) to help promote peace.
The junta’s determination to hold elections will only exacerbate the situation. While the junta appears to believe that elections will help it establish better control than emergency rule, without the NLD’s participation, the election will likely remain a flawed exercise in the eyes of both the Myanmar people and the international community.
Before holding elections, the Myanmar Junta must first create a favorable environment by releasing all political detainees, reshuffling Election Commission with civilian representatives and ensuring participation of all political parties. To avoid further escalation, Western and regional actors must send a clear message that polls are invalid and withhold electoral support, while the parallel National Unity Government must unequivocally oppose resistance attacks on electoral targets.