• Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020
  • Last Update : 11:17 pm

OP-ED: Democracy without rights

  • Published at 12:25 am October 26th, 2020
Suu Kyi
Photo: REUTERS

The 2020 Myanmar general election is already shaping up to be fundamentally flawed

The 2020 Myanmar general election is scheduled to be held on November 8. This election is a significant landmark, as Myanmar’s second general election is based on a multi-party democracy. It is also a crucial litmus test of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) ability to rule properly.

The first such election, in 2015, resulted in a landslide victory for the NLD, the party of the famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Surprisingly, the 2020 general election is not arousing widespread attention from the international community like the two general elections in 2010 and 2015. 

But this Covid-19-contoured election is already shaping up to be controversial and fundamentally flawed due to its democratic credentials being eroded by a declining human rights situation, unequal media access, and well-documented crimes against the ethnic Rohingya people. 

Myanmar is now facing the virulent second wave of Covid-19, which has turned the locked-down commercial capital of Yangon into a ghost city. It poses a growing risk and questions about the credibility of the general election in the pandemic. To contain the pandemic, the NLD government and their Union Election Commission (UEC) have responded with major restrictions on election campaigning, for example, banning public rallies and meetings, and imposing travel restrictions.

In September, 24 opposition parties called for a postponement, a proposal that was confidently dismissed by the ruling NLD. By mid-October, Myanmar had the highest case positivity rate in Southeast Asia. Despite the worsening Covid-19 crisis, Myanmar is approaching no plan B. 

No debate has taken place on the merits and demerits of moving the election date. This speculative behaviour over the election indicates the fragile state of democracy.

It’s important to remember that the state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya in recent years departs from historical practice. Five years can make an extensive change. 

In 2015, many Rohingya people cheered as Myanmar’s first democratic election brought an end to decades of outright military rule.

Today, as Myanmar gears up for another general election, the situation is starkly different. In August 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi, now the country’s de facto head of state, stood by as Myanmar’s army launched a deadly crackdown and ethnic cleansing on Rohingya Muslims, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.

The following year, the UN called the military offensive in Rakhine against the Rohingya a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Like the historic 2015 elections, the Rohingya will not be permitted to vote. 

This is a disruption of past political practice. For instance, in the 2010 elections, some Rohingya, many of whom have temporary identity cards, were able to vote and run for office. Three Rohingya were elected to the parliament to represent constituencies in northern Rakhine State.

In fact, if we go back to the 1990 elections, at least some Rohingya were able to run for public office. Today’s xenophobic regime regards the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” and “Bengali-Bamar.” But the Rohingya voted in Myanmar for decades and played an active part in politics until the military seized power in 1962.

The Myanmar government is using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise the Rohingya and prevent them from running for office, even though most Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations, Human Rights Watch expressed.

It is important to stress that a significant part of the population in ethnic states will be disenfranchised. The UEC admitted that polling stations will not be set up in minority communities -- Rakhine, Kayin, Kachin, Shan, and Chin states -- where the civil war continues. This potentially means that other minority communities could also be stripped of the vote at the military’s whim.

Thant Myint-U, author of The Hidden History of Burma, recently said in a tweet that: “The November election could be ‘deeply flawed,’” adding that it “won’t help Myanmar address any of its big challenges: Violent conflict, climate change, inequality, and underdevelopment.”

Many ethnic communities enthusiastically supported Suu Kyi’s NLD in 2015. 

But since taking office, instead of standing up to the military, the party has actively supported it, ignoring systemic discrimination.

To sum up, the Myanmar government is trying to portray this election as the next stage of the country’s transition to democracy. Undoubtedly, the general election is an acid test of Myanmar’s political transition and economic and social development. But many internationally recognized elements for a free and fair election are missing from its electoral process.

In retrospect, the 2020 election may appear insignificant because of the country’s democratic drift. Democracies around the world can no longer stand by and watch Myanmar continue to erase the Rohingya from their territory, history, and political life.

Md Jahid Hashan is a graduate of political science.

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