Over 37 million Myanmar citizens, including 5 million first-time voters, will go to the polls on November 8, 2020 to determine the outcome of modern democracy. Much is at stake in this election, but the role of the military still looms large in Myanmar politics.
The election represents a litmus test for the popularity of National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under a house arrest by the military for about 15 years intermittently between 1989 and 2010.
The constitutional change needed to further democratize Myanmar is impossible without the military’s consent, so achieving major political transformation through the election alone seems unlikely.
In 2011, after about five decades of military rule, the military nominally handed power to the government of President Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Soon after, in the 2015 election, Suu Kyi’s NLD party won a landslide victory. She is now Myanmar’s incumbent state counselor (equivalent to prime minister) but her international standing has taken a hit in recent years.
Critics accuse her of allowing widespread abuse of minority Rohingyas. Many Rohingya villages were burned down during a military crackdown in 2016 and 2017.
Over 900,000 Rohingya — including more than 400,000 children — fled to Bangladesh and a large number of Rohingya refugees are dispersed across Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, armed conflicts between ethnic armed organizations and the military supported by Israel continue, especially in the Rakhine state and the northern borderlands, and Myanmar’s transition to democracy is faltering.
Suu Kyi’s NLD and its main rival, the USDP, are the two largest political parties vying for a majority of seats. With its origin in the bloody 1988 anti-government uprising, the NLD has long fought for democracy and freedom.
The USDP (currently chaired by Than Htay), on the other hand, was formally registered in June 2010 with tacit support from the military.
However, the USDP’s recent decision not to favor retired military generals as candidates indicates its ties with the military are weakening.
Myanmar’s military has frequently resisted constitutional reforms that would reduce its power. This will ultimately benefit the military and delay the transition to democracy.
If, as is expected, Suu Kyi’s NLD wins a majority this year, the military will likely collaborate with its allies in the parliament to block any constitutional reform.
If Suu Kyi’s political rivals — the USDP and other smaller parties and alliances — obtain a larger presence in the parliament, no single party will have a big enough majority to push through constitutional reforms.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point Political News 2020.