Myanmar’s November Election Reveal Fault Lines in Ethnic Areas

The Winner - NLD supporters in front of Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon
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The Winner - NLD supporters in front of Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon

Myanmar voted on November 8 to choose the next government. This was the third major election since 2010. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) emerged the undisputed victor – winning over 80% of the seats by huge margins in the majority of the constituencies. It was not unexpected. Even before the election, the outcome was already known – the NLD would win the second term. But the results shocked everyone.

The biggest loser in the election is the former ruling USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party). Formed mostly with former high-ranking army officers, they were outclassed by the NLD in 2015 elections. Learning from their election defeat, they came back strong and prepared for the 2020 election. It was predicted that they would do better. However, they were dealt a knockout blow on November 8, winning 8 fewer seats than the 2015 election.

Many other medium-sized and small parties and newcomers such as People’s Party and Peoples Pioneer Party viewed by some as potential alternatives to the NLD also lost to the NLD. But most important of all, ethnic parties that were expected to do well did not meet the expectations.

Fundamentally though, the November election uncovered things that had been known but concealed under multifarious bouts of long and protracted authoritarian rule. It revealed a deepening divide with the Tatmadaw, the country’s armed forces, confirming what has been suspected – the role and adverse influence that the Tatmadaw plays in democratic elections. Mostly though, it is believed that the election results had many pundits wrong in their predictions.

Post-election analyses focused on several remote and immediate causes why the NLD defied the expectations.

The first was said to be the statement of the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw cautioning to be vigilant over the outcome of the elections prior to the election. This was followed by the resurfacing of the firebrand nationalist Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, who is considered an ally of the military and rebel against the NLD a few days before the election in order to surrender himself to the police. He had been on the run for over two years from charges of inciting racial hatred. All at the same time, a time bomb exploded on the eve of the election at a local election office in Bago, about an hour and half drive from Yangon.

All of these events were associated with or considered related to the military. For instance, no one was hurt in the bomb explosion. Though it might not have been the work of USDP or the military, it was widely perceived as such. For NLD supporters, that was all they needed to go all-out for the NLD.

In a country where its military is hated for its past excesses, it was the perfect formula to go against any political party closely or remotely associated with the military. Taking this cue, the NLD campaigned against USDP and other parties using massive tweets on the social media (Note: NLD social media experts admitted officially that they used approximately 360 different names on Facebook to campaign or counter any criticisms again the NLD) and citing the need to fend off the military from making a comeback. Voting for NLD was to defy the military rule and the fear-mongering worked to the benefit of the NLD. Thus, the USDP suffered a crushing defeat. The people had forgotten the UDSP was credited with massive liberalization during President Thein Sein’s time in office during 2011-15; the people only remember the USPD as the military party.

This is not say that the Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal appeals – her sacrifices, her defiance against the military, her charisma and her extreme popularity – did not play a role in her party’s electoral victory. Indeed, they were a deciding factor.  Likewise, Covid-19 restrictions favored the incumbent government while the majority of the parties in large urban centers were restricted to canvassing and campaigns on the social media only.

Of all, the saddest outcome of the election with unimaginable consequences is the role of ethnic parties in the election. The hope before the election was that they could become the countervailing force in the parliament and other branches of the government to bring about much-needed checks and balances. It did not materialize.

They won approximately 15% of seats in the election in 2010 and less than 11% in 2015 election. In the November 2020 election, they won less than 9%.

The ethnic parties could barely conceal their collective disappointment. They thought they did all in their power to do better but were in shock.

A quick look at the facts after the elections reveals something that Myanmar has known all along but not widely known or configured in the election prediction – a considerable demographic change.

Consider Mon State as an example. In Mon State, the ethnic make-up is Mon 38%, Bamar 36% and the rest are Karen and other smaller ethnic groups according to the statistics of the General Administrative Department. The Mon Unity Party won in constituencies where the Mon homogeneity is strong such as in the villages or small towns. But they lost in bigger cities where the majority of electorate resides. This was also due to the fact that city-dwellers, even if they are Mon or Karen, tended to vote for a party that had the most potential to become the next government. They are more educated and aware of political underpinnings. For them voting for a party with the greatest potential to become the next government diminishes uncertainty and provides continuity. 

This was also the point the NLD was able to hammer home and persuaded the undecided voters to go for the NLD.

Among the ethnic parties, the Mon did just a little better than 2015. But in Karen State, the main Karen parties won only one seat for the State legislature. Likewise, the Chin parties did not fare well at all. While the Kayah parties did better than in 2015, the Kachin State Peoples Party won just a few seats – both local and national. The Shan ethnic parties did enough to retain a similar number of seats as in 2015.

Citing security concerns, the government had organized elections in only 42% of the constituencies in Rakhine State. If the elections had been held in all constituencies in Rakhine State, the Arakan National Party, the main party in Rakhine, could have won a landslide victory over the NLD. But in the election equation, when it comes to ethnic parties, Rakhine is an exception due to its greater Rakhine homogeneity in the State. 

All across the board, however, the situation is more or less the same – demographic imbalance with more Bamar living in big ethnic cities. Ethnic homogeneity is concentrated in the areas controlled by the Ethnic Armed Organization (EAOs) but the population in their controlled areas cannot vote in the election.

Additionally, the ethnic divide – within one group or with groups across the States –  remains an issue, preventing ethnic parties from cooperation in mixed ethnic areas. More importantly, analysts have blamed the First Past the Post (FPTP) system of voting for disempowering ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, the election was finished on November 8. But its saga is not over yet. The Tatmadaw has a run-in with the government and the Union Election Commission (UEC) over the request for actual voters list. The Tatmadaw argued that there was fraud regarding the voters list. The government and UEC have steadfastly refused to comply with the Tatmadaw request.

In conclusion, the NLD’s electoral victory has many implications, starting with a difficult civil-military relation being played out over voters list. Then, there is the ethnic dimension. The fault lines with the ethnic groups appear to be bigger than ever.   

If the current electoral system, FPTP, continues, there is no way ethnic groups can represent themselves meaningfully in Myanmar electoral politics.  More crucially, they sounded alarm bells to the EAOs with consequential implications for the peace process. The EAOs have now realized that democracy via elections may not be the answer to their fight for greater autonomy; they may very well play hardball in their negotiations with the government. Then any potential for reconciliation with ethnic groups for greater autonomy will remain a pipe dream in Myanmar.