Direction of Myanmar’s Reform Hinging upon Upcoming Election

October 22, 2015

By Kendell Tylee

1,171 constituencies. 6,100 candidates. 90 political parties.

On November 8, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) will host an unprecedented “free and fair” multiparty election. This will be the first general election in Myanmar since 2011, when a nominally civilian, military-backed government was elected, ending 50 years of authoritarian rule. In the past four years, international sanctions have rolled back and Myanmar has opened up to limited outside investment and press freedoms. However, the reforms have been inconsistent and the government still faces international condemnation over its treatment of minority ethnic groups, notably the Rohingya. And, in defense of a so-called “disciplined democracy,” the military-drafted constitution states that 25 percent of the Hluttaw (parliament) must be comprised of appointed, unelected members of the military, who have the power to veto changes to the constitution.

This past August, IPJ Director Dee Aker and Program Officer for Strategic Peacebuilding, Kara Wong, visited Myanmar as part of a trip highlighting the importance of voter education in this upcoming election. Wong came to the IPJ from Myanmar and has over seven years experience working with local civil society. Responding to an invitation from Wong’s former colleagues, they collaborated with a consortium of international and local organizations. The consortium includes four local organizations Nyaungshaung, Myanmar Egress, Hornbill, and Scholar; three international NGOs (and one foundation) International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), Democracy Reporting International (DRI), Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD),;and Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Together, they are delivering a comprehensive strategy focusing on capacity assistance to the Union Election Commission (UEC), civil society, media and other electoral stakeholders.

IPJ partner organization FNF is specifically focused on preparing trainers with the knowledge and skills to support voter education within their own communities, with the goal of conducting 160 trainings and reaching 8000 voters. Informational pamphlets, videos, and comic books are ready to be distributed and translated from English and Burmese into local languages and dialects.

During the IPJ visit, Wong conducted a two-day training with local groups, emphasizing the importance of minority rights as they relate to elections. In the midst of the heavily-spouted promise of “free and fair” elections, her presentation reframed minority rights as privilege and encouraged discussion around creative solutions and responses to the presence of privilege in an electoral cycle. Importantly, she made the presentation interactive—breaking the participants into small groups to share ideas around how to help citizens connect the act of voting to their everyday concerns and struggles. At the request of FNF and in response to widespread fear that unmet electoral expectations may lead to post-election violence, Wong had participants interview potential voters and develop strategies for managing voter expectations. It is important to emphasize that reform is an ongoing process that will take place well beyond November 8.

It is logistically difficult to run an election in the largest country in Southeast Asia, particularly in what is considered to be its first truly democratic election in decades. As Wong notes, “in Myanmar you are facing roadblocks to integration of new information and behavioral changes. Older generations who have lived through the dictatorship have this longstanding fear [of the government] and remember getting arrested for getting involved in politics at all.” In addition to personal and familial security concerns, apathy persists for those who feel that previous elections did not deliver the change they expected.

War and weather have also hindered current voter education and campaign efforts. Even in ideal conditions, not all of the country is easily accessible. For example, some areas in northwestern Myanmar, bordering India, can only be accessed by elephant, and political groups trying to campaign lament the further lack of access due to weather and to communal fighting in various states. Heavier than normal rains this season have caused flooding, mudslides, power outages and transportation issues. INGOs poised to work with communities on voter education and democracy-building are now instead responding to a humanitarian crisis. Long-standing regional and communal conflict presents additional challenges. While after two years of negotiations, the existing government, negotiators and armed ethnic groups inked a ceasefire agreement on October 15 the agreement remains highly contentious. Of the 21 armed ethnic groups that consider themselves stakeholders in the negotiations, only 15 were selected to participate, and of those only eight signed the pact. Many groups in the north have refused to sign, including the Kachin Independence Army, which is still sparring with government troops.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) is tasked with running the election. The UEC has been accused of aligning too closely with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Voters have expressed frustration that the voter registration is a cumbersome process, and that the UEC is non-responsive, shifting blame to the registrants themselves. The list of candidates on the ballot is ever-changing. Foreign election observers have been kept from accessing certain parts of the country, at times being required to pay $600 for a regional visa into the area. It is also a challenge to extend free and fair elections to those residing outside Myanmar as historically proxy votes have been manipulated in close elections. This week, voters nationwide are reviewing the voter rolls to ensure their information is correct. Common complaints are that deceased voters are listed, but eligible voters have been purged since the last election. Myanmar’s Rohingya population, a persecuted ethnic minority in Rakhine State, has been rejected from the rolls. Rohingya have been issued white temporary resident cards, suggesting an eventual path to citizenship. However, in March, the cards were deemed invalid for voting, despite many Rohingya living in Myanmar for generations. In September, Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin defended the government’s decision when he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He equated the Rohingya as “white card” holders to lawful permanent residents, or “green card” holders, not being able to vote in the U.S. As the statement drew international condemnation, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with the foreign minister to express his concern over the marginalization of the Rohingya and other minority groups who had been previously eligible. Rohingya who have been serving in the country’s Hluttaw are barred from re-election.

As Myanmar carries a promise of reform, there remain great challenges to the country’s political transition. The IPJ hopes to continue to support community partners who are helping voters feel informed, encouraged, and empowered when it comes to their vote, this anticipative election, and the future of their country. November 8 will be a historic day in Myanmar, but November 9 will establish its direction.

Zumzang Dau Dai and Zoncy, founding members of IPJ community partner and youth-led peacebuilding initiative DIVERZE Youth Arts Platform are featured performers in The Art of Peace: Creative Approaches to Conflict Resolution, November 11-14th. Zoncy is the campaign manager for prominent women’s rights activist and NLD candidate Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe.

The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.