Pandemic Woes, Digital Deficits and Ethnic Uncertainties : Myanmar’s Electoral Challenge

On 8 November 2020, Myanmar will go to the polls to elect its next government. Since the aftermath of the democratic transition in the country, which commenced with the elections of 2010, binging in the government of Thein Sein, this will be the third time that Myanmar will go to the polls. The last elections of 2015 ushered in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was a significant shift since the 2010 elections. While the shift to a democratic electoral process is definitely a step up for the country, the increasing number of cases during the second wave of the COVID 19 pandemic and the ethnic tensions within Myanmar are clearly complicating what ought to be a welcome process.

In the early phase of the pandemic Myanmar did not fare too badly as the number of cases were limited to single/ double digits. The first set of cases were detected on 23rd March 2020, following which a Committee on Coronavirus 19 was constituted under the office of the Vice President Myint Swe. This was to act as the coordinating body for managing the spread of COVID 19 and to implement the necessary protocols. Till August, the number of cases remained limited; however, in the second wave of the pandemic, Myanmar has been one of the countries that has experienced exponential rise in cases.

Since end August, Myanmar has been spike in COVID 19 cases bringing the total tally to approximately 45,000 on 25th October 2020. While this may not seem much in comparison to the countries where the single day spikes have risen in tens of thousands, Myanmar remains badly affected among the ASEAN states. This has also put a huge limitation on the electoral process, where the exuberance of the last election is missing due to the social distancing norms and quarantines that are limiting public participation. Adding to these disruptions is the state of the economy which has taken a serious hit from COVID 19. A World Bank report titled “Myanmar’s Economic Monitor: Myanmar in the Time of COVID 19” estimates that the economic growth for Myanmar will go down from 6.8 % for the year 2018-19 to 0.5% for the year 2019-20, revealing the levels of economic distress caused by the pandemic.

Against this background, the request of the opposition parties led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to postpone the elections scheduled for 8th November 2020, has been rejected by the Union Election Commission which decided to go through with the electoral process as scheduled. The decision to continue with the elections is linked to the Constitution which does not contain any provisions for postponement. Moreover, the new government is expected to take office in February 2021, leaving little room for any kind of delay. Even as the USDP is seeking to challenge the incumbent government on the measures related to COVID 19 and the economy, there is a need to ensure that the electoral process is not held hostage by the challenges posed by the pandemic.

One of the impacts has been visible in the campaigning process itself, where both the leaders and the electorate are restricted by the “stay at home” orders that are in place. Several have chosen to campaign through the digital platform. Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, has not been able to conduct physical campaigning and opted to campaign through social media such as Facebook, limiting the extent of her outreach only to those areas that are digitally connected. With digital connectivity being hampered in certain areas the outreach has been limited.

The lockdown has been very restrictive in Rakhine province where nearly a million people are under containment. This complex region is sensitive to identity conflicts involving both ethnic and religious components, running along three parallels. First, the Rakhine ethnic groups comprise both Buddhists and Muslims. The Arakan Army which is a Buddhist group has been in conflict with the Myanmar Army, the Tatmadaw, with demands for more autonomy to the region. Second, the conflict between the Rakhine Muslims and Buddhists adds another critical dimension. And third, the presence of disenfranchised groups like the Rohingya, adds greater complexity, causing risks to peace and stability in the region.

In mid-October, the Arakan Army kidnapped three candidates contesting on the NLD platform. This has been a modus operandi for the group in recent times where they have adopted coercion and kidnapping as part of their efforts to fight the Myanmar military. In its aftermath, the Union Election Commission announced that elections in several areas of the Rakhine province stand cancelled, thereby denying the electoral rights to nearly a million people. Moreover, the disenfranchisement of the Rohingyas has taken stronger roots as other international groups that are in the process of supporting the elections next month seem complicit in the denial of rights to these groups. The tensions in the Rakhine adds a significant mood of concern to the forthcoming electoral exercise. For sure the 2020 elections will add continuity to the electoral process, but the question remains whether it will be free and fair?

Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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