A Dispatch from Yangon on the Eve of Myanmar’s Election

By Aung Din

Street scene in Yangon, Myanmar. Source: Basilstrahm's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Street scene in Yangon, Myanmar. Source: Basilstrahm’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

As I am writing this blog from Yangon, the November 8 election in Myanmar, or Burma, is only a few days away. As a long-time foot-soldier of Myanmar’s democracy movement, I view this historic election with both great enthusiasm and deep concerns. I am hopeful that this election will bring the country to a better future as the political parties try to implement promises made during the election campaign. But I am also concerned about potential conflicts when the great expectations built up during the campaign do not align with the election outcome when the results are announced.

Since I arrived in Myanmar a few weeks ago, I have travelled around Yangon, Mandalay, and northern Shan State. I have witnessed campaign activity by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the Yangon and Mandalay regions, but I saw little activity in northern Shan State, where two Shan ethnic parties are very strong. I have also met with the Union Election Commission (UEC) and many civil society organizations, which are monitoring the elections.

Many people and political experts anticipate a landslide victory for the NLD, based on seeing a sea of red, the color of the NLD, in the Yangon region, but this does not reflect the situation in other parts of the country.

The media reveal strong biases. Newspapers owned by the government and the military publish success stories of President Thein Sein’s government each day who is often accompanied by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces Min Aung Hlaing. Private newspapers publish news only about the two major parties, the NLD and the USDP, while smaller parties do not receive much attention. The private media mostly highlight negative views about USDP candidates, while writing favorably about the NLD.

The UEC is the target of criticism by all parties (political parties, civil society organizations, domestic election monitors, candidates, the media, and voters), for a raft of problems, including the inaccurate voter list, advance voting, voter education, polling station locations, and the code of conduct for election monitors Yet, in my opinion, the UEC is surprisingly patient and responsive to all criticism. It appears to have followed much of the advice provided by its foreign partners, including foreign embassies and civil society organizations, to implement international standards for organizing this election.

Registering voters’ names is now digitized rather than handwritten and therefore there are many mistakes in entering the data due to inexperience. Voter lists are now arranged alphabetically, instead of by the address of a household, based on a software program provided by a foreign partner, and therefore different members of the same family will have to vote in different polling stations. The commission is blamed for not referring to the 2014 national census when it produced the voter list, and many people refuse to acknowledge the UEC’s explanation that the census used codes and did not record birth dates or the names of people who were away from home at the time of the census.

Most of the NLD candidates are young, well educated, inexperienced, and unknown. The fact that they are unknown is a serious problem for the party’s election prospects. The NLD’s headquarters in Yangon rejected many candidates submitted by township branches and picked candidates of its own instead. As a result, many NLD candidates are not locals and are unknown in the districts they are seeking to represent. This has led to some fracturing within the party as independent candidates emerge who get support from local NLD offices without getting support from the party’s top leaders. In some cases local NLD branches are unwilling to campaign for the candidates appointed by the top. Further, some NLD candidates are former members of the military, police special branch (intelligence), and military-owned business entities that have allegedly been involved in human rights abuses, such as land confiscation.

On the other side, most USDP candidates can be categorized as old, well-educated, experienced, and well-known. Being well-known is often double-edged. Many are well-known for their arrogance, ignorance, corruption, human right abuses, and links to the military regime. Some are well-known for their reform mindset and positive contributions to society. Regardless, the USDP has an incumbent advantage: strong finances, alliances with some ethnic groups, and the support of the military and civilian-militias. In addition, a powerful nationalist Buddhist grouping, the Organization to Protect Race and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, is on the ruling party’s side.

In Myanmar, I believe swing voters make up about 30 percent of the eligible voters in every constituency and will play a critical role in deciding the election. I find quite a few people do not care about the election. For example, staff at each of the hotels I have stayed at have told me that they do not know how or where to vote. Many have not seen the voter list and no one has come to explain the voting process.

Based on these observations, I do not anticipate a landslide victory for the NLD. In a campaign speech, Aung San Suu Kyi asked people to vote for the NLD, without looking at the candidates and said that she will take action against any who fail to serve for the people. Many people feel that this promise is irresponsible and unrealistic. A few months ago, the NLD took disciplinary action against one of its representatives in the lower house of parliament. The politician responded by switching to another party, showing that Aung San Suu Kyi can dismiss representatives from her party, but once elected they will remain in office until the end of their term.

A big concern here is that the military may not accept a possible NLD landslide victory. This is a reasonable concern, but I believe that the military will accept Aung San Suu Kyi as the chairperson of the lower house and as a member of the powerful National Defense and Security Committee (NDSC). They may also accept one of the vice presidents coming from the NLD. In the 11-member NDSC, the military already has enough seats (six) to retain a majority. There are also not many policy differences between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. She has already promised to help the military modernize and reach professional standards. The military will be happy to increase the budget for health and education to satisfy Aung San Suu Kyi, and recognizes that having (and constraining) her in the power structure is most beneficial for their interests.

The biggest concern is: what if Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters do not accept the outcome of the election? The NLD may have largest number of seats in the both houses, but this may not translate into winning the presidency for the NLD. What will happen if the results of the elections do not match the great expectations? Those are the big questions as people in Myanmar prepare to vote in what could be the most open elections in the country in 25 years.

Mr. Aung Din is a former political prisoner in Burma and currently lives in the United States. He serves as a consultant for Moemaka Multimedia, based in San Francisco, and as an adviser to the Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI), a non-profit organization based in Yangon that promotes the right to information and education. See more information about OMI here.


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