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Future directions for Myanmar – The 2020 elections

By CEID Blogger, on 10 November 2020

by Marie Lall

8th November 2020 was a historic date for Myanmar. The NLD win was never much in doubt, not least because the only real alternative amongst the 92 contesting parties is the USDP, the party that is home to the former military generals who used to rule the country. The day is historic, not because the NLD won but because by power remaining in NLD hands, Myanmar is a step closer to embedding its participatory system, and taking a step further away from military rule. The military remains part of politics, but it no longer calls the shots.

In light of this historic achievement, it is paramount to remember that Myanmar has challenges and that many citizens, despite their support of the NLD, are deeply disillusioned with how the NLD has managed key issues over the past five years. Given the lack of success in making major changes, it is important to review what remains in effect a laundry list to be tackled between now and 2025.

First and foremost the peace process. Conflict has been a central feature of Myanmar’s trajectory since independence. The Tatmadaw has been waging war against one or the other ethnic armed group for decades. Under President Thein Sein – Myanmar’s first participatory government (2011-2015) – the first ever comprehensive peace process was engendered. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised in 2015 to bring it to a successful close, but rather than conflict waning, it has risen and the process has all but fizzled out. Ethnic armed groups and many of their followers want federalism with more power and money devolved to the subnational level, something not on offer by the NLD.

This has had a direct baring on the election as ethnic parties – decimated in 2015, have united in order to beat the NLD locally. Some ethnic nationality citizens report that the NLD has not represented their needs; even ethnic nationality MPs who won seats for the NLD in 2015 have confirmed that the NLD did not allow them to bring up ethnic issues as part of their mandate.  However at the time of writing it does not look like ethnic parties have made substantive gains – in part because voting in ethnic areas was hampered. 1.5 million were disenfranchised when voting in their areas was banned because of conflict. This has affected areas in northern Shan, Kachin and some Karen areas. Mostly however it has affected Rakhine State where more than half the townships have not had a vote, including in some areas where there has not been much conflict, but where the rival ethnic party has more support than the NLD. This of course calls into question the issue of ‘free and fair’ elections.

The issues pertaining to Rakhine state go beyond voter disenfranchisement and support for the Arakan National Party (ANP). Rakhine State is known both for the forced exodus of the Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017/18 and the creation of a new conflict front between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw. Whilst the NLD might not be able to do much about the new civil war; the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi decided to stand at the ICJ in the Hague denying the charges of genocide has severely weakened her personal and her government’s stand internationally.

Another key challenge is the state of the reforms that started in 2012 and includes major economic changes and big plans for the health and education sectors. The main issue has been that the country’s ministries  – most often egged on by well meaning development partners – trying to change too much too quickly and running out of capacity to deliver. Myanmar’s reforms have resulted in an increasing gap between the richest and the poorest in society. Decentralisation has not happened, meaning that the poorer ethnic states in the periphery and remote rural areas have not seen much of the benefit of the growth touted in the media. It is unclear what the NLD plans to do about the growing economic inequalities. Much of that growth has recently been affected by Covid 19 and in June 2020 Myanmar’s GDP growth forecast for FY2019/20 was revised downward from 6.4 percent to just 0.5 percent as all sectors are affected.

Covid 19 has of course affected the elections directly as well. To date Myanmar has had 60,000 cases with 1390 deaths. In person campaigning has been impossible, and much of it was moved to Facebook resulting in a crisis of trust and transparency. Social media in Myanmar has a bad reputation for fake news and contributing to the social cohesion crisis between religious and ethnic communities over the past 8 years. At a recent elections webinar beamed out of Yangon, young people stated how social media was distorting the paying field with the NLD having better access and know-how, compared to smaller and ethnic parties. One participant questioned if parties were really representing the people and the point of an election if it was not going to be ‘the vehicle’ to take the country forward’. The issue of representation and if parties actually reflect the wishes and aspirations of the people has become a big talking point in urban Myanmar, especially amongst the disillusioned youth.

Overall it is clear that there has been less enthusiasm both for the NLD and the elections than five years ago. As the NLD resumes power with a reduced majority, the citizens of Myanmar have to hope that the party and their leader do not take this vote as an endorsement of the past 5 years but rather an instruction to continue and possibly try harder.

Please join us on the 25th of November for a CEID webinar on the Myanmar elections and the launch of Marie’s latest book. Please register at here.

The book is open access and can be downloaded here.

Marie Lall is Professor of Education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education. She was UCL’s Pro-Vice-Provost South Asia (including Myanmar) 2015-2018. She has worked on Myanmar since 2005 and is the author of Understanding Reform in Myanmar (Hurst 2016) and Myanmar’s Education Reforms – a pathway to social justice? (UCL Press 2020)

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