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Forthcoming Election in Myanmar: Litmus Test of a Fledgling Democracy in the post-Pandemic Era

A joint article By,GOURI SANKAR NAG,Professor and Head, Department of Political Science,Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia, West Bengal  & By MANAS MUKUL BANYOPADHYAY,Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science,Hooghly Mohsin College, West Bengal


It is difficult to predict the trajectory of Myanmar’s democratic transformation even after 73 years since its independence from the British colonial rule in 1948. Over the years India’s foreign policy has also shifted increasingly from a normative value based stance to an increasingly pragmatic and realist overtone. However, I. P. Khosla, former career diplomat and secretary, ministry of external affairs, government of India, began his take on India and Myanmar with the opening remark that “In international relations there is a continuing tension between the ethical and the expedient…(However) Practitioners do not find it so difficult to resolve this ‘ineluctable tension’; for them most situations demand a practical mix of the ethical and the expedient…” (Sinha & Mohta ed. 2007). His reference point is the collective agenda of “the building up of a world commonwealth”.

But gone are those days of Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu. In the changed situation in the 1990s India’s policy vis-à-vis Myanmar stood on three bases. According to Khosla, on the ethical front, the purpose was promotion of democracy and of human rights; on the expedient line of thought, it was promotion of strategic concerns. Also “we have the strong commitment to non-interference as a basic norm for the conduct of international relations”. So, from this perspective we can say that India and her civil society would be happy if Myanmar’s democratic transformation gets tempo with free and fair election. But such possibility is silhouetted by dark pale of cloud. However, to India, Myanmar’s cooperation is very crucial for counter-insurgency operations mainly against such armed groups like NSCN Khaplang, ULFAS etc, border management, for infrastructure development as part of the Look East policy and above all, to handle the Chinese threat. Because Myanmar acts like China’s proxy in India’s mountainous northeast. The degree of this topographic challenge and mental perturbation can be appreciated only if we take into account the true implication of tremendous political interest that the forthcoming general election in Myanmar has already generated. The diplomatic stance that informs India’s approach is to wait and watch how it takes place and whether that amounts to genuine move to facilitate Myanmar in “its gradual transition to disciplined democracy post 2010”.

First, elections in South Asian states have increasingly become image make-over without substantial change, it means no fundamental change has taken place in the main repositories and configuration of power. Here by power we not only mean political power but more than political elites it is the economic elites who are exercising control from behind. So, democratic events like elections often turn into routine affair without real groundswell and celebration of people’s power.

It becomes clear in the context of such countries like Pakistan, Myanmar, and Thailand with long tradition of military predominating national politics as well as the state apparatus. In Myanmar army first came into power in 1958. Notwithstanding multiple challenges to its rule, the military has been able to stick around power by means of its constant re-invention while trying to assert its dominance over society which is internally divided along ethnic lines. Hence, keeping the ethnic division intact was its strategy so that large-scale solidarity does not turn into waves of popular protests and widespread dissatisfaction with its nature of patronage politics. Thus a very complicated political management operates through a nexus of vested interests. That is why one would be camouflaged to see the “incarnation of the nominally civilian government” and its functioning through “a series of liberalising reforms that have dramatically opened more socio-political space for opposition and non-state actors to participate in national politics”. But from these trappings and window-dressing we cannot adduce a very optimistic prospect of a more open and participatory Myanmar in the future. According to Roger Lee Huang, a young scholar at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong, “the institutional design and historical legacy of the military’s role in state-building have ensured that it has enough ‘reserve domains’ to maintain its prominent role within any foreseeable future governments in Myanmar”.

If we examine the historical trajectory of Myanmar’s military regime, we would see how reforms with a veneer of egalitarian touch like the programme of nationalisation of different “larger western companies” were systematically introduced as a strategy purported indirectly to facilitate the military to ensure its continued survival as the key political actor in Myanmar. The crackdown of the 2007 known as ‘Saffron Revolution’ was a notorious episode, although slowly thereafter the government created a positive environ by certain cogent steps to infuse confidence into the civil society to work for national reconciliation and resumption of peace talk.

However, it is not the political system alone but a lot of things depend on election, specifically business and commerce. Experience of past occurrence of communal riots is still vivid in the minds of the Indian business classes and diaspora at large. Basically such riots resulted from severe conflict of interests between the local inhabitants and the members of diaspora. It shows the underlying the fault lines of competition which under the current pandemic situation must be getting aggravated and tensed. In this context election is important because it can be instrumental to project a stable government with election pledges for further reform for more investment friendly milieu leading to more connection with the West. Precisely that means openness and prosperity. Although we do not know whether Myanmar will ever be allowed by China to go over to the West and the European Union, or whether China would coerce Myanmar to maintain the political status quo without much pro-democratic reforms.

So, there are several factors which signal various indications. First of all, the Rohingya problem remains outstanding and the Myanmar state does not seem to budge before any pressure either to recognise Rohingya’s demand for special community treatment nor their citizenship. Hence, election in the South-western Rakhine province (Arakan) with majority of Rahingya population faces security problem.

Second, apart from the Rohingyas there are various ethnic groups which have links with armed gangs operating locally like pirates and drug dealers. Besides, election time is particularly an opportune moment for various covert activities by the radical political groups and organizations like the Burmese Communist Party who are strong in a number of pockets and are pitted against the ethnic Bamar and Chinese-influenced leadership. These ethnic militia groups are always prone to act with radical intent and always they cannot be effectively controlled by military crackdown. The continuous operation of these groups not only points to slack law and order problem but also exposes the critical gaps of governance mechanisms at the state level. That is why the temporary approach of ceasefire agreements with the government should always be replaced by sustainable development strategies. Else deprivation often encourages the marginal communities to switch over to such violent activism that amounts to negation of democratic ideology.

Renowned expert Ian Holliday in his important work Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar (2011) has discussed about the political system in Myanmar and how the country’s transition to democracy was “decisively curtailed” by the “entrenched military elite”. They have constructed a structure—the tatmadaw that amounts to “a state within the state”. The military thereby has adopted a benevolent posture by means of own social welfare institutions which lends it to enjoy legitimacy in society because “access to social welfare, and occasionally even to basic goods require connections and networks to members of the military” (Holliday 2011).

Thirdly, the location of Myanmar near infamous Golden Triangle makes the land and its people prone to embroil in business of illicit opium and smuggling of drugs. Although there is no evidence of state revenue coming from such business, still the drug trade in Myanmar is a pervasive network where some connection with official circles cannot be ruled out.

The National League for Democracy is currently the most popular party but Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s bold iconic protagonist role that we have seen against military junta received a great jolt with her biased attitude towards the issue of atrocities and state repression on the Rohingyas that started since 2015. That is why the popular image of the party even after it swept 2012 by-elections, came to be tarnished when its partisan stand became clear on the contentious issue of “insiders and outsiders”.

Thus, political conditions in Myanmar as it evolved from civil wars, religious and ethnic strife and struggled hard for modernization and strategic decision of the military elites to open up the system is still oscillating between hopes of a better system of governance and continued internal strife on the question of citizenship. Besides, the current pandemic has flagged two issues of utmost importance—health security and economic recovery. Therefore, with these factors in mind, we should look at Myanmar’s ensuing election. Admittedly, Myanmar is trying to become more and more democratic day by day. As a natural corollary, the question of democratic elections instead of military junta has come up in that country, since democracy and elections go hand in hand. But, in fact, it has been seen that all the elections held so far there have been rigged. This year also there are multiple concerns regarding the voter list which is awfully incomplete in different villages of the Rakhine province from which many inhabitants have fled since 2015. Yet there is no initiative on the part of the Myanmar administration to rehabilitate the Rohingyas. Not only this, moreover, even during this pandemic Myanmar army’s crackdown operation to hunt out members of armed groups and guerrilla fighters in Rakhine and adjoining provinces is raising the question of what the administrative apparatus is trying to achieve. Besides, what is always important is not election per se but all necessary arrangements from preparation of voter list to election campaign and election monitoring by impartial observers are very crucial on which the credibility of the exercise depend. In this context, we find to our frustration that the Election Commission of Myanmar has imposed a ban on People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), an independent election monitoring group. Such retrograde step makes us suspect about the tacit pact and understanding between the military junta and the NLD leadership. That is why even when Suu Kyi became the victor in the 2015 election, and became the symbol of peaceful revolution, in practice, that did not materialise. The amount of sympathy and popularity that she had enjoyed, was on the wane. As the state counsellor since 2016 her position has changed noticeably from a people centric approach to somewhat conservative stance, always wary of compromising with the military elements, the nexus with which could not be completely eradicated yet.


Under this backdrop the election is going to be held. So the big question for all of us is how the real democracy (fairness, peace, rule of law and justice) can be maintained in the election. This apart, another major problem to the Myanmar Government is to accommodate the Rohingya community into their State. The impact of all these cannot be negligible in the coming election in November 2020.


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