This isn't democracy: Myanmar is planning for troubled elections
Sunday's vote would make a decision not only on the shaky constitutional compromise, but also on its civilian representative, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar's politics were once cast as a simplistic morality tale: a prisoner with flowers in her hair fighting a clutch of generals who massacred and jailed pro-democracy activists.
Latest incidents muddled the story. As the country goes into Sunday's general election, the vote will serve not only as an evaluation of a shaky government, but also as a verdict on its civilian leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar is now listed in the same breath as Darfur or Sarajevo, for ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by its military. Last year, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, still with flowers in her hair, defended Myanmar against allegations of genocide.
Her administration has emulated some of the oppressive methods of military leaders who shut her up, silenced and imprisoned peaceful poets, teachers, and Buddhist monks. Any of the young activists running as opposition candidates in Sunday's election were arrested on the kind of questionable allegations the junta once wielded.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, and her National League for Independence, five years of sharing power with the military, are expected to win in the elections. Even with a raging pandemic, early voting for older people was enthusiastic. Some took pictures of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a freedom hero, like a charm to polling stations.
But the fact that Myanmar's democracy 's health remains so attached to a single woman has irritated many lawmakers, accusing the National League for Democracy of failing to create the kind of institutions required for democracy to take root in the region.
"We've risked our lives for a democratic society, but now we're losing hope because of the ruling party," said U Ko Ko Gyi, a 17-year-old student leader and political prisoner. Last year, he officially broke off from Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and founded the People's Party, which on Sunday is first running candidates.
Waiting in the wings is the military, which already dominates the main force levers and declares war against racial minorities, which make up about one-third of the nation's population. In 1962, a rabidly nationalist general attempted a coup against an ethnic-struggling administration. Followed a half-century of military law.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in - chief of the army, indicated to insiders that he would like to be president, a role Parliament would determine by March 2021. Since the army chief commands one-quarter of the national legislature reserved for military officers and the three top cabinet posts, along with a combat force of some 350,000 troops, it may be impossible to refuse his wishes to the general.
"He's the chief of Myanmar 's largest organization and if he becomes president, the world will be stronger," said U Thein Tun Oo, spokesman for the Union Unity and Development Group, representing the interests of the army. "Only a few users had negative ratings."
In Myanmar's border areas, where ethnic minorities are clustered, the military is unwelcome. So is Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose pledge to deliver stability and national unity has been threatened by intensifying violence between military and ethnic armies battling for state sovereignty and systematic disenfranchisement.
About 1.5 million eligible voters from a population of around 37 million people were disenfranchised last month after polls were cancelled in their districts before Sunday's election. The National Election Commission said open combat between the army and separate ethnic armies made balloting difficult.
"When ethnic armed groups choose to address the issue without weapons, ethnic minorities will have the right to vote and select parliamentary ethnic representatives as they wish," said U Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy.
Daw Tin Mar Aung was once a National League for Democracy stalwart, working as a special assistant to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, and riding with her as she won human rights awards worldwide. Yet Ms. Tin Mar Aung now runs for a political party serving the Rakhine ethnicity in a state ravaged by armed violence. Ethnic parties have predicted endorsing the slide of the National League for Democracy after its landslide win in 2015.
Canceling the vote in Rakhine State sections by the electoral commission deprived her of 80% of her electorate, Ms. Tin Mar Aung said.
"It's not fair, it's not right, but I have 20 percent to work with," she said. "Other candidates have lost their entire constituency, but they have no rights. I'm so sorry, this isn't democracy.
Another million or so Rohingya Muslims, many of whom escaped a three-year - old violent ethnic cleansing program, never enjoyed any hope of voting in these elections. Many still remain in crowded refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh after their villages were burnt down, while others were confined to camps.
On the eve of elections, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have maintained her influence with those who see her as a kind of political goddess. Although hundreds of new political parties are fresh contestants, none have the National League for Democracy 's organizational scope, which formed from the ashes of a crushed student revolution in 1988.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's fans believe it's unlikely for a civilian leader — especially one who is still forced to share power — in only five years to sweep away the ills of decades of a military regime that battered the nation's health and education structures and ruined the economy.
Supporters say Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who acts as the nation's state advisor since the military-drafted constitution forbids her from presiding, must walk cautiously. General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the army, suggested on Tuesday that the election commission was under the control of the National League for Democracy, lamenting several missteps in the election process.
A government spokesperson fired back, accusing commander of fostering anarchy and breaching the Constitution. Thursday, just three days after the referendum, the military issued a statement telling the public that it was the "guardian" of the country.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended her government and the country's political progress in a video shared on Facebook the same day.
"As most lawmakers have said, the democratic system isn't perfect, but it's the strongest one of people-invented schemes," she wrote. "Even in a long-standing democratic region, election problems remain."