. As another election looms in Myanmar, its democratic transition remains a facade | Ceasefire Magazine

Special Report | As another election looms in Myanmar, its democratic transition remains a facade

This Sunday, almost 40 million people in Myanmar will have their chance to vote in their country’s second multi-party election in decades. Yet this democratic opening remains nothing more than a façade, Steve Shaw reports.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, November 8, 2020 9:51 - 0 Comments

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(Credit: AFP/Getty)

This Sunday, 8 November 2020, almost 40 million people in Myanmar will have their chance to vote in their country’s second multi-party election in decades, following more than 50 years of brutal military rule.

The election has been called “an important milestone in Myanmar’s democratic transition” by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and western governments have been offering support under that pretext. Yet the country’s burgeoning democratic opening remains nothing more than a façade.

It is a façade driven by the country’s civilian government and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman once considered a beacon of hope and change but who has become increasingly authoritarian, chipping away at any chance the country had of emerging from the shadows of military rule.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a sweeping majority in the 2015 elections, paving the way for the country’s first non-military president in 54 years. Because she has foreign family members, Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from running for the presidency. Instead, a new role – State Counsellor of Myanmar – was created specifically for her, making her the de-facto head of government. The victory raised hopes for a full democratic transition, and there was a chance this could happen if it wasn’t for the 2008 constitution drafted by the military to preserve their own interests. Those interests included giving the head of the military the power to select 25% of the members of parliament and handing the elected government no constitutional control over the military’s actions.

This constitution alone makes it impossible for Myanmar to hold free and fair elections, yet governments around the world have been happy to offer their support to the civilian government in the hopes that it will get there in the end. In the United States, then-President Barack Obama went as far as to prematurely lift almost all sanctions that had been placed on the military, while the British Government offered it financial aid.

But this blind faith in Suu Kyi and what she could mean for democracy has turned out to be a massive error of judgement by the international community, most notably because it freed the military from scrutiny. Just two years after Suu Kyi won the election the world watched in horror as videos and pictures poured out from Rakhine State, home of the long persecuted Muslim Rohingyas who were being slaughtered by their hundreds. Entire villages were torched, hundreds of women were raped, thousands were thrown into mass graves. It was a campaign of systematic and widespread extermination of an ethnic group described by the UN as “the most persecuted” on the planet.

The atrocities exposed the horrifying truth behind Myanmar’s new civilian government when Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, publicly defended the indefensible. On social media, she attacked rape victims by posting a banner which read “fake rape”, and claimed reports of genocide were overblown in spite of 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh; and most recently she defended the country’s military in The Hague.

Her handling of the crisis acted as a brief wake-up call for the international community, but as the genocide faded from the headlines, so too did the outrage from the west. Governments such as the UK, have been happy to ignore many recommendations made by the UN aimed at preventing further violence against the Rohingya. Most notably, ahead of the upcoming election, governments were told:

“The Government of Myanmar should provide that all persons eligible to vote in the 2010 general election, and their children who have turned 18 since then, are eligible to vote in the 2020 general election. Member states and organizations, including the United Nations, should make this a key consideration in, and integral to, the provision of support to the Government of Myanmar in the organization of elections.”

The rights organisation Burma Campaign UK has revealed that the British Government is handing aid money over to the body responsible for administering the Myanmar elections, the Union Elections Committee, despite the Rohingya being barred from voting by Aung San Suu Kyi. “Aid money which taxpayers expect to be helping the most vulnerable and needy is instead assisting an apartheid election, while at the same time Rohingya held in internment camps in Burma, and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, live in squalid conditions without enough aid,” campaigners said in a report.

Furthermore, the European Union has also been happy to lend financial aid despite the discriminatory practices of the NLD. The funding made through the EU-funded STEP Democracy project has gone towards the creation of a voting application which some believe is key to identifying the ethnicity of voters. According to Yadanar Maung, spokesperson for Justice For Myanmar:

“While some countries may include ethnic identifiers for equitable representation and inclusion, this is clearly not the case in Myanmar. Myanmar’s use of ethnic and religious identifiers are in the context of the state’s discriminatory laws and policies, including the 1982 Citizenship Law, introduced by a military dictatorship. Ethnic identifiers do not aid in the democratic process in Myanmar, in which Rohingya candidates have been disqualified and Rohingya voters have been disenfranchised.”

The website for the EU’s STEP project states that it “supports inclusive, peaceful and credible electoral processes”. Yet it is not just the barring of the Rohingya which is problematic in November’s election according to campaigners who have also details of how news and human rights websites have been banned for the first time in nine years, while a million people have been banned from the internet entirely. There are also almost 200 political prisoners currently detained. Even with the NLD poised to win the election, the government has continued to censor election statements from opposition parties and has introduced significant challenges for people to register as a political party.

In her book Freedom from Fear, published in 1991, Suu Kyi wrote that it is not power that corrupts but fear, “fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it”. Almost 30 years on, it has become clear that it is Myanmar’s former democracy icon that fears losing power and is prepared to cling onto it, even at the expense of her country’s future.

Steve Shaw

Steve Shaw is a UK-based journalist whose writing has been featured in New Internationalist, The Diplomat, Global Comment, The Tibet Post and others. He has also contributed to several stories featured on BBC Radio and local news publications across the UK. He has lived and worked among exiled Tibetans in the foothills of the Himalayas and Burmese migrants in Thailand. His global reporting has covered major human rights issues ranging from state surveillance in the UK and human trafficking in Nepal to the genocide of the Rohingya people in Burma.

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