Given the current circumstances, we have removed the names of individuals and local organisations from this article for their own protection.
We talk with DRI’s Country Representative in Myanmar, Eva Gil, ahead of this weekend’s elections in the country.
What is DRI Myanmar working on for the election?
DRI supports non-partisan domestic election observers, a specialised type of civil society organisation that monitors the election process to increase voters’ trust and issues reports with recommendations for improvements.
Here in Myanmar, we work with the support of the European Union and also to follow-up on the EU’s Election Observation Mission recommendations, promoting broad-based dialogue and awareness to improve Myanmar’s electoral framework.
We are also keeping a closer eye on the situation in Yangon. We have prepared an overview of the top 15 townships to watch ahead of the vote during the election.
What are the greatest challenges during these elections?
Myanmar’s 2015 elections were held in a positive spirit and were seen as a chance for a fresh start that would remove stalwarts of the old regime from the government. The voter turnout was high, as were the expectations for a government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Now there is increasing disappointment with the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) leadership and the 2020 elections are held in a climate of discontent.
The political landscape has changed since 2015, with new national parties emerging - often these are spin-offs from the major government and opposition parties. New ethnicity-based political parties were founded, as the multiple small parties in Myanmar’s ethnic states merged to form a united front against the ruling party. There is a climate of antagonism particularly between supporters of the USDP, the successor party of the military regime, and the NLD. In some areas, unfortunately, we have seen more violent clashes between supporters of the two parties during this election campaign than during previous elections.
A big risk for the democratisation process is voter disenfranchisement, which particularly affects candidates and voters in areas with large ethnic minorities. Myanmar has highly restrictive citizenship criteria and many local and international actors, including the UNHRC Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, have recommended that the 1982 Citizenship Law should be reviewed. In addition, not only must candidates be citizens, but their parents must both be citizens (at the time of the candidate’s birth) to stand for election. The authorities have put more emphasis on the scrutiny of particular groups of candidates – resulting not only in Rohingyas but also other Muslim candidates being disqualified for this election.
These problems already existed in 2015 and a lot of work was done by domestic election observers and human rights defenders to raise this issue and put electoral reforms on the agenda. However, the government appears to have lacked the political will to strengthen civil and political rights while prioritising foreign investment or “economic development” and, to some extent, peace negotiations. It is important to continue supporting and pushing democratic and human rights reforms, as issues such as citizenship law or electoral laws are make-or-break matters that compromise the legitimacy of the political system as a whole.
If these issues were not enough, the covid-19 pandemic also represents an enormous challenge to the electoral process. Many parts of the country are under lockdowns or stay-at-home orders, which considerably limits voters’ and candidates’ freedom of movement. Unfortunately, the authorities did not consult the Union Election Commission (UEC), Myanmar’s election commission, and many precautionary health provisions came at very short notice. For example, the regulations on how to hold campaigns while respecting public health guidelines and “social distancing” came only one day before the start of the official campaign period. This caused a lot of challenges to parties and candidates who had to be creative and adapt to those restrictions at the last minute.
Some of our partners and the media also report that the major parties, both the USDP and the NLD, have held mass rallies throughout the country despite UEC and public health requirements. This, again, can result in smaller, ethnicity-based political parties feeling alienated and unfairly treated in the electoral process.
Was there increased online campaigning on Facebook due to covid-19?
Of course, compared to previous elections, there was increased online campaign activity, which added to the challenges faced by candidates and parties. Facebook has made important efforts to improve its services in Myanmar, holding regular meetings with civil society and election stakeholders (the UEC, political parties, and the media) to better understand the country and more effectively moderate content.
The specific problem in Myanmar is that candidates are using their personal Facebook accounts to campaign, rather than Facebook pages, which makes monitoring more difficult. Based on our research and that of our partners, we saw that nationalism was a dominant topic during the campaign along with the discrimination of ethnic or religious groups.
At the same time, Facebook was used as a platform by many of those political parties that did not agree to air an abridged version of their campaign speeches on public broadcasters. All registered parties obtain free space to broadcast their manifestoes through public television, subject to prior review by the UEC. Unfortunately, the UEC applied a very wide interpretation of their powers to review the campaign speeches and many, mostly smaller or ethnicity-based political parties, disagreed to what they considered censorship and decided to stream their speeches on Facebook instead.
Interestingly, Tik Tok played an important role for youth: in particular followers of both the NLD and USDP uploaded thousands of videos to campaign for their party, achieving over 3 million views. If you consider that in Myanmar there are 4 million first time-voters, this is a high figure! Unfortunately, we also found some videos portraying clashes and violence among opposing party followers, as well as disinformation and content discriminating minorities.
How about women’s participation?
Women’s participation in politics is very low in Myanmar - in 2015, 13% of candidates were women and, while better, this time the increase was only to 16%. On a positive note, while in 2015 the NLD fielded almost all the female candidates, many more parties are putting forward women candidates this time around and a few parties - particularly ethnicity-based parties - fielded about 30% women, a move that civil society was advocating for.
Several constituencies will not be able to vote this weekend. What does this mean for the overall process?
I already pointed to disenfranchisement as one of the biggest challenges in general. In late October, the UEC announced that the elections would not take place in some areas, in many cases to the dissatisfaction of political parties and voters who felt that the decision was taken in an opaque and unfair manner.
Of course, as a general rule cancelling a vote is an extreme measure that should only be implemented under very specific circumstances and, in that case, votes should rather be postponed than cancelled. The problem in Myanmar is that there are no clear criteria to determine where the vote would be cancelled or postponed, as the laws give the UEC very broad powers to cancel elections “where the situation does not permit”. There appears to be a lot of back and forth lately between the UEC, the government and the military about the number of constituencies where voting was cancelled and who is to blame. This could all have been avoided if there had been clear and objective criteria in the law that guide the UEC, along with written and public documentation of its decisions.
When it comes to the right to participate in elections, the partial cancellations are a total restriction of voter rights: the election goes ahead and voters in some wards and villages are excluded, although the winning candidate for that area will still represent all voters in that constituency.
If the whole election in a constituency is cancelled, it actually means that it is postponed as voters might at least have the chance to vote at a later stage (probably within a year, through by-elections). The postponements might still have political implications, though, in particular at the state and regional level where the margins are smaller.
Again, disenfranchisement is a huge problem in Myanmar and it has many dimensions. But when it comes to cancellations, for example, a solution such as agreeing on clear legal criteria in a broad consensus would avoid political problems and allegations of bias in the future. In other words, by failing to reform problems within the election framework, the credibility of the process is weakened. This is not only contributing to disenfranchisement but also affecting the credibility of the democratic institutions as such. We hope that the next government will take these up and involve all stakeholders in making the laws clearer and more specific so that election processes in future will be more inclusive, transparent and credible.
What role are domestic election observers playing in the process? Will they be able to provide a truthful picture of the reality on the ground, given the covid-19 restrictions?
As Myanmar’s airports are still closed to all commercial air traffic, foreign journalists will not be able to enter the country and the international press will hardly cover these elections. The same applies to international observation missions: the EU has decided to send an Election Expert Mission, which does not include a big number of observers. Both the Carter Center and ANFREL were only able to deploy a limited number of locally established international observers.
In this context, the pressure on domestic observers is huge and they suffered a lot of challenges as a consequence of the covid-19 restrictions. For example, observer organisations had trouble recruiting volunteers because potential candidates were afraid of coming into contact with the virus in overcrowded polling stations and travel between townships is restricted.
We supported CSOs in adapting their methodology to these challenges and they will still have evidence and data to prepare their analysis and recommendations. Of course, we must manage expectations of what can be done under these special circumstances.
What is next for DRI Myanmar?
We hope that the discontent with this election, in particular with the election management body, will help us raise electoral reforms on the political agenda. Of course, the winners of any election will have little incentive to change a system that benefits them, but electoral reforms mean much more than electoral system change!
I want to highlight that the grey areas and inconsistencies that we had already pointed out in 2015 have created big political problems in 2020. The next government and legislature should prioritise electoral reform and generate a broad debate - including with minority and ethnicity-based parties – to reform the democratic “rules of the game” so that everyone feels treated fairly.
We also see this as an essential part of the peacebuilding process. You cannot build a new union if conflict actors, armed ethnic groups and ethnicity-based political parties do not agree to how elections, the very essence of democratic practice, are carried out.
This was prepared under the European Union (EU) funded project ‘Support to Electoral Processes and Democracy – STEP II Democracy’ – which supports inclusive, peaceful and credible electoral processes, and enhances the capacity of stakeholders to strengthen the democratic transition in Myanmar.