What the 2020 Election Mean for Democracy in Myanmar

The 2020 election is the first-ever election in Myanmar organized by a democratic government since the 1950s. The tri-polar power structure – with the military and ethnic armed groups besides an elected civilian government – creates specific challenges.

Mahabandoola Park
Teaser Image Caption
Civil life in a transitioning democracy: Yangon's Mahabandoola Park on a Sunday afternoon

The 2020 election is a critical juncture for Myanmar simply because it will consolidate electoral democracy in Myanmar. Myanmar is in the very early stages of an electoral tradition. There has been only one credible national election in Myanmar, in 2015, and it has led to the first change of power since the 1950s. To Myanmar people, credible elections equal democracy.

The 2020 election will strengthen in Myanmar a democratic habit of choosing one’s own government periodically, instead of just accepting a government that was imposed on you by a person or a handful of people as in most parts of our recent history. There will be 5 million first-time voters in 2020, and they will be the backbone of electoral democracy for generations to come.

The 2020 election has another very important quality. It is also the first-ever election organized by a democratic government since 1950s. It will give us an opportunity to see whether a democratic government can organize a free and fair election. It is not just about the logistics of a nation-wide election in the largest country of mainland Southeast Asia, with more than 50 million people, but also about the political will to handle potential conflict of interests always inherent in the elections. This is because, for instance, the incumbent government chooses the people in the Union Election Commission, the organizer of national elections in Myanmar.

Constitution Drafted by the Military

Enter the role of democratic institutions. Ironically, the military-drafted current 2008 constitution becomes the mother of all democratic institutions in Myanmar including the electoral process, the parliament and the above-mentioned election commission. This is a Constitution that lets the military recommend the ministers for three security-relevant ministries; the ministry of defense, the ministry of home affairs and the ministry of border affairs. It is the forced division of labor between civilian government and the military: the military taking care of security affairs such as police work and the civilian government the rest including economic and social sectors. The practical relationship between the military and the civilian government is not very clear to an outside observer.

The Constitution also gives the military 25 percent of the seats in the parliament prompting a ¾ full or ¼ empty glass situation depending on your point of view. Is Myanmar a 3/4th of a democracy or 1/4th of a military state?

Aung San Su Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy party (NLD) made a campaign promise in the 2015 election that they would amend the Constitution and reduce the military’s quota in the government and in the parliament once in power. The reality is that they cannot amend the Constitution without the military’s agreement.

Tri-lateral Power Structure

The 2016-2020 period shows that there exists a working relationship between the military and the NLD. The current commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Su Kyi have gotten to know each other since she entered the parliament in a by-election in 2012 after her release from house arrest. The military and the NLD have disagreed with one another on certain issues in the parliament and in the government, but the military seem happy to let a system of their creation work.

The military is saying that they would reduce their quota in the government and the parliament once peace has been realized in Myanmar. It turns out to be a huge task given that Myanmar has one of the longest running internal armed conflicts in the world. In 1949, just one year after the independence, rebels of different ideologies and different identities took many parts of Myanmar, fighting against the democratic government and sometimes fighting against each other. This instability and fierce political competition and fragmentation eventually paved way to coup d’état in 1962. Numerous armed groups are still active in Myanmar. The largest ones among them number tens of thousands and have carved out their own military states near the borders with neighboring countries, especially China, Myanmar’s big neighbor in the North. These non-state armed groups – mostly ethnic ones – fight against the military and against each other, affecting some 12 million people, one-fourth of Myanmar’s population according to the Asia Foundation, a non-profit international development organization.  People who live in the areas of armed groups have to pay taxes to them.

Rather than the bi-lateral power structure between the military and the civilian government well-known to even casual Myanmar observers, in reality Myanmar has tri-lateral power structure among civil/military/armed groups, which makes democracy work less well. The 2020 election might not be able to change that power structure automatically. The peace process has to be resumed after the election. However, the military and armed groups regard the national election as integral to change of power in the center and try to influence the outcome of it in their own ways.  In this sense and with some limitations, they are supporters of electoral democracy in Myanmar.

Uneasy relationship

The uneasy relationship between the military and civilian government took centre stage when the military operation in the Rakhine State against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2017 led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people to Bangladesh. This exodus led to estrangement between Myanmar and the West, which had supported Myanmar’s democratic opening up. This pushes Myanmar closer to China that acts as a protector of Myanmar in international arenas such as United Nations. Ironically, all this happened at a time when Myanmar is trying to be less dependent on China.

Despite its obvious advantages, the election is divisive given Myanmar budding democratic culture and post-conflict or conflict situation in many parts of the country mentioned earlier. There are good signs of a functioning democracy. Civil society plays a greater role than what it used to in the recent past. Independent media emerges after decades of strict state censorship under the authoritarian rule though facing new challenges in the form of lawsuits from state entities, mutual hatred of different power players and sustainability issues amid unfavorable environment. Explosion of mobile penetration and use of social media means both freedom of speech and rampant hate speech and fake news on the social media. 

Last but not least, the 2020 election is a Covid election. That means at least two things. First, the election has to be held amid Covid despite obvious challenges. Campaigning has been disrupted meaning the incumbent NLD party might have an upper hand with the general public confusing government activity with NLD activity. There might be fewer voters on the Election Day for fear of Covid. Secondly, the winner’s prize would be the responsibility to deal with Covid-torn economy in a least-developed country. If not handled well, deterioration of economy could endanger Myanmar’s young democracy. However, a government fresh out of a credible election would be the most legitimate for that unenviable task.