2020 Elections Provide Little Progress

An Overview of Burma’s Recent Election

Dr. Ashley South

Dr. South is an independent writer and consultant, and Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University

PLEASE NOTE: This overview was written towards the end of 2020, before the military coup of February 1, 2021 in which the Tatmadaw (Burma Army) invalidated the results of the November 2020 elections and threw most elected officials from the winning NLD political party into prison. While the coup has obviously made the results of the election moot (for the moment), we believe this analysis is still accurate and reflects the reality of the political situation inside Burma at the end of 2020.

Although Burma (Myanmar) held elections in November 2020, these did little to resolve decades-old conflicts, or address the concerns and aspirations of the country’s ethnic nationality communities. This year, the very difficult situation of many ethnic people was exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic, which has severely impacted rural livelihoods (as well as reducing remittances from nationality migrant workers in Thailand and other neighboring countries).

Of the country’s Ethnic Political Parties (EPPs), only the Arakan National Party (ANP), Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), Mon Unity Party (MUP), Kayah State Democracy Party (KSDP), Ta’ang National Party (TNP) and PaO National Organization (PNO) won significant numbers of seats in the 8 November elections. Parties representing Karen, Chin and Kachin communities performed poorly.

Unfortunately, the polls have resulted in a perception, including among some international stakeholders who are keen to back the government, that ethnic groups in Myanmar are not interested in ethno-nationalist politics, and that ‘ethnic concerns’ are of secondary importance for most people. The NLD’s landslide victory also creates an impression of strong government legitimacy, including in conflict-afflicted, ethnic nationality-populated areas. However, this is not an accurate perception.

EPPs did poorly in the elections because polls were cancelled (by the Union Election Commission) in many armed conflict-affected, ethnic nationality-populated constituencies, which might have been expected to vote for ethnic parties. Furthermore, millions of ethnic nationality migrant workers in neighboring countries (particularly Thailand) were denied the right to vote, while mostly Burman migrants from elsewhere in Myanmar were allowed to vote in ethnic areas, after only three months residence. Ethnic communities were further disenfranchised through Rohingya people being denied citizenship and the right to vote, or to contest elections.

In contrast, the NLD governing regime enjoyed the power of incumbency, using Coronavirus pandemic relief to bolster support, while EPPs were largely unable to campaign due to pandemic restrictions. Also, the ethnic vote was split in constituencies with more than one EPP (and sometimes more than one EPP representing the same ethnic group). In addition, strong ‘brand loyalty’ to Aung San Suu Kyi was reinforced by widespread perceptions that the NLD is the only party which can stand up against the military, while Myanmar’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system disadvantages smaller parties.

A key element in the success of Kayah and Mon parties was mobilization of the community in protest against heavy-handed NLD government policies (for example, erecting statues of General Aung San in state capitals, without consulting local people). It is also important to recognise that the SNLD in particular seeks to represent all nationalities in Shan State.

Particularly in areas where the polls were suspended, armed conflict continued in 2020 – with the Myanmar Army conducting large-scale offensives against the powerful Arakan Army in the west, with numerous violations of civilian human rights. The latter part of the year saw a lull in fighting with the Kachin Independence Organization in the north. However, in other areas where ceasefires are supposedly established, such as Karen State in the southeast, the Myanmar Army nevertheless launched attacks against civilians and harassed the Karen National Union (KNU), including the destruction of a number of local coronavirus surveillance checkpoints.

In this context, the KNU and other Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatory groups continued to press for a political settlement to decades of armed conflict. In the August 2020 Union Peace Conference, the government and Tatmadaw agreed to continue the peace process beyond 2020, including political dialogue, which will be essential to address long-standing ethnic demands. However, many actors and observers fear that, encouraged by their election win, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party may be unwilling to do more than pay lip service to ethnic demands for federalism.

* Tatmadaw refers to Burma’s armed forces