Myanmar’s Parliamentary Elections Were Deeply Flawed
No polling in designated ‘conflict zones’.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to comfortably win Myanmar’s parliamentary elections held on Sunday, November 8. But the elections were deeply flawed. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million Rohingya Muslims had been disenfranchised earlier by discriminatory citizenship laws, intimidation and military action. Millions were forced to flee to Bangladesh.
"It's appalling that Aung San Suu Kyi is determined to hold an election that excludes Rohingya voters and candidates," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) had said in a statement before the polls. “She knows that real democracy cannot flourish in an apartheid regime imposed on the Rohingya,” Adams said.
Polling was not held in designated “conflict zones”. The decision of the Union Election Commission (UEC) not to hold elections in “conflict zones” had effectively disenfranchised many ethnic minority groups as these zones are typically their homelands. The areas affected by this decision were Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin and Bago areas.
In addition, there were no elections for 25% of the seats reserved for the military in each of the two Houses of parliament.
Polls were held for the 224-member Upper House (the House of Nationalities); the 440-member Lower House (the House of Representatives); and the State and Regional legislatures. Elections for Ethnic Affairs Ministers were also held in ethnic electorates. But here again, only select ethnic minorities in particular states and regions were entitled to vote.
Doubts about the quality of the poll notwithstanding, the ruling NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is all set to win the elections. The Nobel Peace Prize winner known as “our mother” among the dominant Bamar community undoubtedly enjoys substantial support. Educated liberals look upon her as the harbinger of democracy and human rights.
The majority of Bamars and liberals want a full-fledged democracy with the military completely de-politicised and kept out of parliament. Suu Kyi herself has been ill-disposed to the military having fought military juntas all her political life.
But, like the educated elite in many countries, the Myanmar (or the Bamar) elite want democracy for themselves and not for the minorities. In Myanmar, the elite turn a blind eye to the injustices being done to the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
Ultra-nationalists, who are quite numerous among the Bamar, are firm supporters of the military, and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Like the military, these ultra-nationalists are anti-Muslim and are strong opponents of any constitutional or legal concession to the minority ethnic groups, especially the Muslim Rohingyas. The pro-military groups also support the virulently anti-Muslim Buddhist monk, Asin Wirathu.
The pro-military nationalists cannot be written off. In the current 224-member Upper House, the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has 56 MPs, and in the 440-member Lower House, it has 110 members. The figures for NLD are 129 and 248 respectively.
Due to a sustained military action over years, 1.5 million to two million Rohingyas were forced to flee the country and take shelter in over-crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh. Meanwhile the Rohingyas were disenfranchised and their National Register of Citizens (NRC) cards taken away.
In an interview to Nikkei, Tayub Uddin, 65, a senior vice chairman of the Rohingya party, the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), said that his parents were stripped of their citizenship when their National Register of Citizenship (NRC) cards were taken away. The Rohingyas had won seats in elections starting in 1939, and several were elected till 2010, but not since, due to disenfranchisement, Tayub Uddin said.
As in 2015, this time too, Rohingya candidates were barred from contesting. The Election Commission said that authorities could not confirm the citizenship of their parents when the candidates were born, a criterion for election to parliament under the existing law.
Dus Muhammad, a DHRP election aspirant asked: "How come my father could serve as a police officer if he was a foreigner?" Dus Muhammad was disqualified as the UEC said his father was not a citizen when he was born.
"According to the law, candidates can be disqualified anytime, even after they passed the final step, if we find something that does not meet the criteria," Myint Naing, a member of the election commission, told reporters during an online press conference in October.
Rohingyas who hold temporary registration certificates, known as "White Cards," were able to vote in the 2010 general elections. But in 2015, the then military-backed government announced that the White Card was no longer valid for voting.
While the Rohingyas maintain that they are indigenous in the Rakhine State in Myanmar, the majority Bamars, the military and the NLD, think that they are recent immigrants from the Chittagong region of Bangladesh because their mother-tongue is a Bengali dialect. The Rohingyas are also accused of wanting Rakhine to be merged with East Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947. Later they were accused of forming an armed secessionist group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).
In the guise fighting ARSA, the Myanmar military had systematically carried out ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State. In fact, the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague is hearing a case of genocide filed against Myanmar filed by The Gambia.
Days before polling, Myanmar’s military (called the Tatmadaw) issued two statements about the voting, one of which warned the government that it must take responsibility for mistakes on the part of the Election Commission. In an exclusive interview to Popular News Agency on Tuesday, the Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said: “The Tatmadaw is responsible for protecting the country and the Constitution.”
He then went on to say that it would be difficult to achieve a stable democracy when there were violations in the election process. On Thursday, the military pointed out that while their chief’s rank is equivalent to that of the Vice-President of the country, the State protocol department ranks him at No. 8 after the Union Chief Justice.
It is clear that the military had upped the ante. It is scared that if the NLD comes back to power, it will attempt to revise the constitution to deny or reduce it’s membership in parliament. Right now the Tatmadaw has 25% of the seats in each of the Houses of Parliament. It also has a monopoly over the ministries of Defence, Borders, and Internal Security. In March, the military managed to thwart an attempt to amend the constitution to bring down its representation in parliament gradually over the next 15 years.
The military also fears that for political survival, Suu Kyi and her NLD might, over time, deliver on the promise to the ethnic minorities to devolve power to regions dominated by the ethnic minorities. She might even make some concessions to the Rohingyas under Western pressure. After all, Suu Kyi had been sheltered and encouraged by the West to fight army rule in Myanmar. The West had given her the Nobel Peace Prize for her services to democracy.
However, the military could be wrong on the Rohingya issue as Suu Kyi is a Bamar hardliner on the Rohingya issue. Her testimony at the ICC in The Hague would suggest that. It is an acknowledged fact that she had become more popular because of her fearless advocacy of Myanmar’s case vis-à-vis the Rohingyas.
A plethora of parties (as many as 90 of them) had fielded candidates in Sunday’s polls, a good number of them represent minority ethnic groups. The minority ethnic groups are 30% of Myanmar’s population. But the ethnic groups are hopelessly divided. If they do combine, they may be able to play a decisive role in Myanmar’s parliamentary politics. They could be kingmakers in the case of a close contest between the NLD and USDP.