Something to play for

Amid a climate of disillusion, Richard Cockett looks ahead to a poll that offers hope for a more democratic future

Myanmar’s next general election is not due until November 2020 but already in Yangon, Naypyidaw and the country’s other big cities, pundits, people and politicians are talking about little else.

This partly reflects the stagnation of the current civilian government; people want to look forwards rather than back. Headed by state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has become bogged down in its internal wrangles with the army and the international fallout from the genocide of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group in 2017. The mood now, even among the Lady’s erstwhile fans and supporters, is of frustration, even profound disappointment.

But the talk of elections also suggests a new-found appetite for democracy and political competition. And that’s a rare ray of hope amidst the gloom that has enveloped the country since those radiantly optimistic days in early 2016, when Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept into office promising radical reform of almost everything.

It is also distinctly possible that these elections might produce something rather more interesting than the Lady’s regal procession once again to what is, de facto, the country’s top job.

The NLD won a large majority in the 2015 election, the first such ‘free and fair’ contest to be held since before the military governments grabbed power in 1964, and it remains very unlikely that it will be defeated in 2020. But with the fall in Ms Suu Kyi’s popularity over the last few years, the party could yet struggle to form a majority government, especially if the army manages to hang on to its unelected block of MPs in parliament, making up a quarter of the lower houses’ legislators. Indeed, by-elections in 13 seats last November suggested how vulnerable the NLD could be. Having won 11 of those seats in 2015, this time round it gained only seven. If it does have to share power, perhaps as the largest party in a governing coalition, this could have dramatic and even exciting consequences for the future of the country.

There are three clear threats to the NLD’s current hegemony. First, Myanmar’s myriad ethnic parties, mainly on the geographic fringes of the country, will mount a much sterner challenge to Ms Suu Kyi than they did last time out. In 2015, hundreds of thousands of Kachin, Chin, Shan and others voted for the NLD instead of their own ethnic parties. They hoped that Ms Suu Kyi would achieve the long-lasting peace between their peoples and the Burman army that had eluded all her predecessors, going all the way back to the days after independence from Britain in 1948. Those hopes have been dashed, however. If anything there is now even more conflict in certain parts of Myanmar, such as Kachin and Rakhine states, than there was in 2015.

MODERATE: Shwe Mann played a key role in the transition to civilian government
MODERATE: Shwe Mann played a key role in the transition to civilian government

The vast majority of ethnic minority peoples, who make up around 40 per cent of the country’s population, now see Ms Suu Kyi primarily as an oppressive Burman nationalist rather than the unifying figure who could have bought the country together. Her harsher critics see her as little better than all those stony-faced military men who came before her. Her complicity in the appalling violence in Rakhine state has hardly helped her cause.

Myanmar’s myriad ethnic parties will mount a much sterner challenge than previously

Expect, therefore, votes for ethnic minority parties to increase, and also for those parties to start picking up more parliamentary seats. In 2015, the minority ethnic vote was often split between several parties claiming to represent them. In Myanmar’s Westminster-style first-past-the-post system this was fatal, and the NLD often won soft seats as a result.

Now, however, the lesson has been learned: over the past few years competing ethnic minority parties have been merging, presenting a more direct challenge to the NLD. In October last year, for example, all three Chin parties merged into one new one, the Chin League for Democracy. Two Mon parties have merged, as well as three Karen and two Kayah. Some of these tactical alliances might yet unravel in the heat of electoral combat, but on paper they should allow the ethnic parties to win rather more than the 11 per cent of parliamentary seats that they won in 2015. In the 2018 by-elections, the NLD lost five out of the six contests in ethnic minority seats. It is always dangerous to read too much into by-elections, but this was surely a portent of sorts.

Secondly, the army’s proxy party, the USDP, might well put up a stronger showing than they did in 2015. Their candidates will stand on an aggressively unambiguous platform of nationalism, sovereignty and Buddhist chauvinism. This should be enough to detach some Burmans, at least, from the NLD, especially in the Burman heartlands in the central plains of the country. The army remains unapologetic about its actions against the Rohingya in Rakhine state. The generals’ claim that the army was merely responding to a clear and present security threat there is widely believed. This narrative dovetails with a widespread paranoia about a possible Muslim takeover of the country, also widely shared among Burmans, and perpetuated by some prominent nationalist monks. The USDP will exploit these sentiments as never before, and there is a real danger that elements within the army might even provoke confrontations in Rakhine state, or against Muslims in other parts of the country, to stoke nationalist feelings in the run-up to election day. There are about 200,000 Rohingya, for example, left in Rakhine state, and they are easy targets.

By now, Ms Suu Kyi would have hoped to have had a good economic record to pitch against the atavistic appeal of the USDP, but unfortunately progress has been very slow. Many people will feel no richer than they were in 2015, despite all the promises of a stampede of foreign investment and financial reforms. Pointedly, in the November by-elections the USDP managed to win three seats, in one case beating the NLD into third place

Lastly, a threat to the NLD is emerging from new parties, often referred to as the ‘third force’ in Myanmar. This is the most intangible factor in the forthcoming elections. Such parties might just fizzle out as they get squeezed by the two main parties, or they might draw enough voters away from the NLD to cause it fatal damage in some key constituencies.

In October last year, all three Chin parties merged into the Chin League for Democracy

Two new groupings stand out. In February, Shwe Mann, the former number three in Thein Sein’s reforming military government of 2010-15, launched the ‘Union Betterment Party’. Shwe Mann is a moderate who played a key role in the transition to civilian government, and used to work closely with Ms Suu Kyi when she was leader of the opposition and he was speaker of the lower house of parliament. He is competent and well-known, and could form a bridge between army moderates and those in the NLD disillusioned by Ms Suu Kyi’s high-handed ways and poor record in government.

Another potentially important new group has been formed by Ko Ko Gyi, the celebrated leader of the ‘’88 generation’ of activists, those who challenged the old military regime in an uprising from the streets in 1988. He has set up ‘The People’s Party’, as an obvious rival to the NLD. He could outflank it on the left, promising real change rather than the chimera of the NLD.

As if in response, and also to further distance herself from the USDP, Ms Suu Kyi has recently set up a new committee in parliament to draw up recommendations for changing the army-drafted 2008 constitution. This document preserves the army’s privileged 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, and also bars Ms Suu Kyi from being elected president. Her government promised to try to change this as a matter of urgency, but never acted. Her belated commitment to do so is commendable, but may be too late to produce much of substance in this parliament.

In short, the NLD might not be the shoo-in that many expect. Certainly, the party will have to up its game if it is to prosper in an increasingly competitive electoral environment. But the party also retains many advantages. It is the only one with a national grassroots organisation; it is also the only party with an instantly recognisable leader, albeit a tarnished one. Like the ANC in South Africa, the NLD also retains a reservoir of loyalty towards it dating from the harsh days of military rule when its leaders were regularly killed, tortured or imprisoned. Burmans, and others, respect these sacrifices. History it on its side, but, increasingly, little else.

Dr Richard Cockett, a London-based staff writer for The Economist, was the magazine’s South-East Asia correspondent from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma

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