Aung San Suu Kyi’s party wins troubled elections in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party has won elections in Myanmar marred by the persecution of opposition figures and exclusion of Rohingya Muslims from the vote.

While the eyes of the world were focused on the electoral drama unfolding in the United States, the citizens of Myanmar – with some important exceptions – headed to the polls on Sunday the 8th of November to cast their vote in a general election. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has been confirmed as the winner, gaining a comfortable majority as it did five years ago in the country’s first democratic elections in over half a century.

Ethnic Kayan voter elections in Myanmar 2020
A Kayan ethnic woman shows her inked finger after voting at a polling station in Kayah state © STR/AFP via Getty Images

The results of the elections in Myanmar

476 seats were up for grabs across the two houses of parliament, and the NLD – which had already claimed a landslide victory days before a definitive result had emerged – has so far won 346 out of 412 declared seats, and could be on course to gaining an even bigger majority than the 390 seats it has held since 2015. Before the election, some believed the ruling party’s success would be dampened by the emergence of new political forces and increased support for ethnic minority parties in regions where dissatisfaction with the central government is high. Early results showed some gains for ethnic parties in the states of Kayah, Mon and Shan, and the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is backed by the military, has won 24 seats so far.

In recent months, Myanmar has seen a major upsurge in coronavirus infections, with most of the country’s 60,000 confirmed cases occurring since August. The election also took place against the backdrop of continuing ethnic conflict, with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s army) locked in confrontation with the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin states. Earlier this year, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights launched an investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with concerns about the Tatmadaw’s increased targeting of civilians.

Covid-19 in Yangon, Myanmar
Myanmar has seen a surge in Covid-19 infections © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

A difficult road to democracy

In 2011, Myanmar was believed to be on the path to democracy after decades of military rule. In 2015, the country held its first democratic elections since the mid-20th century, and this news was greeted with optimism from around the world. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi became the de facto head of state and many thought this would herald an era of liberal reforms. The past five years, however, have told a different story.

The country’s constitution, drafted by the military regime, allocates a quarter of parliamentary seats to the army, giving it the power to block constitutional reforms. Its heavy influence over Myanmar’s politics is further evidenced by the persecution of the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim group living in Rakhine state that has been continuously denied citizenship and is considered one of the most persecuted minorities in the world: 700,000 people were forced to leave their homes in 2017, most of them fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh as refugees. The army crackdown that caused this mass exodus has been described as having “genocidal intent” by the UN, and reports of mass rape, torture and summary executions targeting Rohingya have led the International Court of Justice to undertake investigations into whether Myanmar’s actions constitute a violation of the Genocide Convention.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
Over half a million Rohingya fled from Rakhine state to Bangladesh in 2017 following a crackdown by Myanmar’s military © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Rohingya denied the right to vote

Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to acknowledge the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya, repeatedly denying such claims and even going as far as to avoid calling the ethnic minority by name. Members of the Rohingya community who remain in Myanmar were refused the right to vote in the recent election because they’re not considered citizens of the country. Most politicians representing this group were also barred from participation in the elections.

While Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue could be seen as a strategy not to antagonise the military or jeopardise the democratic processes that have gained a foothold in Myanmar over the past decade, many critics point out that it is inexcusable to ignore the abuse and suffering inflicted on this as well as other ethnic minorities in the country. All the more so considering that the de facto leader’s actions (or lack thereof) are likely to have curried favour with the country’s ethnic Bamar Buddhist majority, which makes up a substantial part of the electorate.

NLD supporter in Myanmar "Muslim-free" village
A supporter of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in a self-declared “Muslim-free” village in Yangon, Myanmar © Getty Images

Elections in Myanmar “fundamentally flawed”

Human Rights Watch has described the recent elections as “fundamentally flawed,” denouncing the disenfranchisement of Rohingya people, unequal access to state media across different parties, and arrest and prosecution of government critics in the lead-up to the election. Many anti-government websites were blocked, and people who advocated for boycotting the vote were threatened with arrest. On election day, polls across Rakhine state were closed down, depriving over a million people of their chance to vote and paving the way for an NLD win in a state where it is deeply unpopular.

Overall, the 2020 elections in Myanmar have shown that the country is still very far from achieving the democratic goals many had hoped for. While a significant portion of voters still chose Aung San Suu Kyi as their best hope for the future, the feeling of optimism that surrounded the 2015 elections, especially among international observers, has all but dissipated.

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