Myanmar’s afterthought election

8 November 2020

In stark contrast to the jubilant mood for Myanmar's landmark election in 2015, the 2020 election feels like an afterthought, writes Nicholas Ross.

Myanmar's first democratic election in almost three decades was a euphoric moment that captivated the world. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won government in 2015 after 27 years opposing military dictatorship.

The NLD promised to liberalise the economy, improve infrastructure and develop the agricultural sector. It also sought peace through dialogue with Myanmar's myriad non-state armed groups, and committed to work towards a federal union built on the principles of equal rights for ethnic groups, self-determination and resource sharing. 

Fast-forward five years, the NLD's first term has been a disappointment for people in Myanmar and from around the world who held high hopes for the party.

NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has had a dramatic fall from grace on the global stage over the Burmese military's ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya minority in 2016-17. The brutal campaign drove more than 700,000 Rohingya people out of Rakhine state and across the border to Bangladesh, and displaced 100,000 more within Myanmar.

Despite this humanitarian crisis, a worsening armed conflict, backsliding on civil liberties and weaker-than-expected economic growth, the NLD is almost certain to be returned to power this Sunday with a majority of seats in the upper and lower houses of the national parliament.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upset the electoral process, particularly to the disadvantage of smaller parties in terms of their ability to campaign effectively. Myanmar ducked the first wave of COVID-19 in March and April, but the virus was able to enter the open wound left in Rakhine state by years of exclusion and armed conflict. By early September, it became clear that a new outbreak was spreading fast. Over 1,300 people are confirmed dead from the virus, with many more unconfirmed deaths.

The pandemic is also causing an economic crisis that will hang over the next term of government. The world recession has hit important sectors in Myanmar such as oil and gas, tourism, and manufacturing-particularly the garment industry. However, Myanmar's political debates continue to devote very little attention to economic concerns.

Despite the perceived failures of the NLD's first term, there are still some reasons for optimism. The 2020 elections will almost certainly feature voter participation far above many so-called mature democracies, with little violence. The results will be mostly uncontroversial and are likely to deliver a government with a huge mandate. In what was once one of the world's most enduring military dictatorships, this will be no small achievement.