Already two years have passed since the Myanmar military junta ousted the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) regime of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021. In the election of November 2020, the regime gained a landslide victory securing 82% of the seats whereas the military-backed party named Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) attained only 6.4% of the total seats. However, the junta-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC) bringing out inedible allegations against the election annulled the results and by the time led to the coup d’etat. Despite the robust reports regarding the fairness of the election investigated and propagated by numerous international observers, the military junta alleged that the election did not adhere to the country’s electoral laws and constitution. Accordingly, the junta overthrew the NLD regime, jailed the top leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi and brought a new phase of turmoil to the country that people have been enduring for the last two years.
From the very beginning, after the coup had happened, the Myanmar military general Min Aung Hlaing reiterated to arrange the national election but over time it just appeared as spurious. He exhibited concerns regarding the political unrest and opined that it would make it arduous to hold an election, although he refuted the destruction throughout the country conducted by the junta. Despite all the predicaments, diverse international communities have been hoping to observe a positive situation in the junta-proposed election. On the other hand, the recent trajectory of the milieu of the political spectrum in the country suggests that even if it somehow takes place in August it will not be a free and fair election at all.
Per a recent statement by Derek Chollet, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Myanmar, ‘there is less room for a fair election in Myanmar under the junta regime.’ He also said, “the United States believes there is no chance that proposed elections in Myanmar will be free and fair.” Moreover, according to Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tuna, a spokesperson of the Myanmar military said that due to problems with voter registration and an increase in “subversive actions” by resistance groups, it is uncertain whether the election will take place in 2023. In spite of having grave suspicion about the transparency of the elections, the junta has been negotiating with the rebel groups of the northern state of Shan and other territories to be cooperative in the elections to be held in August 2023.
Recent Meetings with the Rebel Groups: Question of Participation and Fair Elections
In early January Myanmar junta met and held talks with three armed groups that control the state of Shan and other considerable territories including the Northern and Northeastern states where the elections are decided to soon be held. The three rebel groups, Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), the United Wa State Party (Uwsp) and the National Democratic Alliance Army largely remained neutral in the country’s post-coup conflict which erupted since the coup took place in early 2021. However, there are nearly 20 rebel armies in Myanmar consisting of several ethnic groups that have been at war with one another for many years over the control of natural resources and, in some cases, the trafficking of drugs.
In December, the Myanmar military junta met and conversed with five smaller ethnic rebel groups: following the meeting, they released a joint statement endorsing the military government’s plans to arrange elections there. As a part of the development and wider campaign to accumulate support for the August election the military junta has been engaging in talks with several groups for the last few months. During the talks, the groups upheld their “political needs and interests” and importantly proposed “building a union based on democracy and the federal system” to make the elections happen. Per Agence France-Presse, a spokesperson for the SSPP said that the military asked them to let the military hold free and fair elections in their area and the groups also consented that ‘ they will not oppose’ junta-led elections in the states this year. While the junta gauges the talks as a win, the rebel groups mostly agreed with the military as the peace process championed by the previous junta in 2011.
However, the democracy watchdogs and Western governments particularly, the U.S. observed it as a sham process and dismissed it by asserting that it would be a military ploy to retain power as no date has still been set. Some political observers claim that the junta schemes to elect a pro-military government through the elections. Moreover, reprimanding the eviction of the NLD, the other rebel groups such as the Kachin Independence Organisation, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Karen National Union, and the Chin National Front have rejected peace talks with the junta and offered assistance and haven to the anti-junta armed forces like People’s Defense Force and so on. They also insisted that until the shadow government of NLD, National Unity Government (NUG) and the PDF are allowed to take seats at the table, they will not partake in peace talks.
New Election Regulations: A Sham to Bring Despondency?
By putting stringent rules and regulations on political parties, Myanmar’s military administration took an early effort toward arranging parliamentary elections by August this year, although doing so may make fair voting challenging and impossible. As a preliminary stride, the military released a 20-page law that prescribed intricate and stern rules for political parties wishing to compete in the elections. Intriguingly, despite the party’s landslide victory in the 2020 election and dismissal of the junta’s claim by international communities, these inflexible rules may thwart the participation of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). One of such rigorous rules implies that the party must completely avoid any kind of communication with the resistant groups otherwise it could be declared unlawful and dissolved to have nominations.
However, in December last year, Suu Kyi was sentenced to 33 years in prison, and the junta also imprisoned several other important members of her party, including former president Win Myint, with a view to keeping them out of national politics. Suu Kyi’s backers in the shadow National Unity Government urged the citizens to reject “sham” elections as per experts’ claims it is plotted to elect a pro-military government. In this regard, in November 2022, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the international community to renounce any assistance and credibility to the military to hold a national election since it didn’t “meaningfully engage with pro-democracy leaders.” He furthermore mentioned that ‘the regime has planned sham elections, which would only escalate the conflict, drag out the crisis, and defer the nation’s transition to democracy and stability.’
For many experts, however, there is instance about the likelihood of the election that the National Defence and Security Council is expected to meet the military junta in the following week in which Min Aung Hlaing is likely to handover the power to the council because the constitution forbids any further extensions of the state of emergency. Moreover, according to the constitutional rule, six months following the termination of the emergency rule, elections must be held. Now the question is whether the junta regime will abide by the rule. If they will do so, will it be free and fair for all and be accepted by the international communities? Even if the election happens, as the United States and other European countries are observing fewer rays for fairness in the election, the volume of sanctions from the West will prolong and the crisis will remain unresolved until ‘democracy’ comes back.
What Would Be Suitable for Holding Fair Election and Restoring Democracy?
The rebel groups taking place in Myanmar at the moment are different from other previous ones, which the military was able to quickly bring under control. There is less chance that the rebellion will be placated with engineered elections of the junta. Even with the support of politically mature personalities, the younger generation is now fully conscious of the opportunities and freedoms offered by democratic regimes which are drastically missing in the junta regime. Since the planned election is anticipated to be a fraud and the return to a military government is not the palpable route to stability, the plan for federal democracy is seemed to be the only possible remedy in this respect.
The idea of democratic federalism put out by the resistance and backed by the majority of the populace represents the only true possibility for a return to political stability in Myanmar. According to experts, it is the only feasible mean of bringing the diverse population of the country into a common union based on the tenets of federalism that would enable the civilian people to relish portions of shared social, economic and political power. Although this strategy is still in its early stages, it represents Myanmar’s first significant attempt to unite the populace behind a shared set of objectives. However, in order to make such a plan a reality international communities need to assist the resistance forces by providing strong support and practical guidance.
[Photo by MgHla, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs.