Myanmar’s Hollow Democracy on Display

Matthew Dodwell

Myanmar held general elections in early November, its second since the military junta lost power in 2011. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by its charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi retained power, winning 346 of the 412 contested seats. Supporters believe that this victory shows that democracy is strong in Myanmar, but there is still a way to go.


Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most recognisable face, is well-known in the international community for her fight to bring democracy to a country previously ruled by the Tatmadaw–the military–and her 15 years of junta-imposed home detention. In 2015 her NLD party swept into power in a landslide victory over the military’s (nominally civilian-led) Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the international community praised her for bringing human rights and democracy to the small Asian nation. Across the world, she was considered a beacon of hope and democracy.


Five years on, this promise of hope hasn't translated into action, and it was most on display to the world during Myanmar's general election earlier this month. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party has sidelined ethnic minorities and hamstrung opposition parties. For all the talk of progress, Myanmar still has work to do to shore up its democratic institutions.


It’s important to note that Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to deliver democracy doesn’t rest entirely on her shoulders. Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, written by the then-ruling military junta, reserves 25% of Parliament seats for the military, and the military also controls the Defence, Border, and Home Affairs ministries. These ministers are handpicked by the Chief of Army, ensuring that the military and the police stay firmly under his control. The civilian government’s hands are tied, and constitutional change cannot occur without the support of the Tatmadaw.


Despite these limitations, the NLD must take some responsibility for the state of Burmese democracy. Critics note Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the ongoing Rohingya genocide. The Tatmadaw may orchestrate the genocide in the Rakhine state and, in some sense, there is perhaps very little that the NLD can do. Still, Aung San Suu Kyi has notably refused to condemn the atrocities and has even defended the Tatmadaw for some of their actions. At best she has provided implicit support for the military’s actions in the Rakhine state.


The NLD has done very little to support the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, and arguably their democratic rights have eroded further under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership. The Rohingya population has been disenfranchised by having their citizenship and right to vote revoked and voting in the 2020 election was cancelled in much of the Rohingya-majority Rakhine state due to the ongoing conflict. Nine of seventeen electorates were barred from voting, and unsurprisingly most of the remaining eight electorates still eligible to participate in the election were NLD seats.


Burmese media outlets report that the NLD announced it had written a letter to thirty-nine ethnic minority parties announcing closer collaboration and a “federal union” that would pay more attention to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. However, even that gesture was politicised by the NLD as there are forty-eight ethnic minority parties in Myanmar, and it was noted that the nine parties not initially included in the NLD’s letter had recently met with the military chief. After being called out, the NLD later sent the letter to the remaining nine parties. Given the NLD’s previous attitudes towards minority groups, it remains to be seen if the NLD will back up its letter with actions.


Another area of concern is the United Electoral Commission (UEC), which oversaw the election. Rather than being an independent body, the UEC is appointed by the ruling party and receives funding from them–in this case, the NLD. In essence, the UEC answers to the NLD. During the 2020 election, the UEC favoured the NLD in providing prime-time campaign slots and created new rules requiring political parties to get pre-approval from the UEC before running any political messages on state-run TV and radio–effectively hamstringing Myanmar’s opposition parties.


Aung San Suu Kyi was heralded as a beacon of hope and democracy when her political party took office in 2015, ending a decades-long reign of oppressive military rule in Myanmar. Five years on, this hope hasn’t translated into change. The Tatmadaw still plays a large role in Burmese politics, and won’t go away anytime soon. Aung San Suu Kyi has done very little to bring democracy to Myanmar’s ethnic minorities by disenfranchising the Rohingya and cancelling elections. The country’s electoral commission answers to the NLD and has restricted a free and fair election. Despite massive improvements to democracy in the past decade, Myanmar unfortunately still has a long way to go to achieve the full democracy demanded by so many.


Matthew Dodwell has recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focused on security issues in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.

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