A Report of Discussion on ‘Myanmar’s 2020 Election: The Way Forward’ 

By CSEAS Staff 


October 19, 2020 

On October 15, 2020, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University organized a discussion on ‘Myanmar’s 2020 Election: The Way Forward’. The discussion was chaired by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, the Executive Director of CSEAS. The panel consisted of Dr. Nicholas Farrelly, Professor and Head of Social Sciences at University of Tasmania; Dr. Chaw Chaw Sein, Professor and Head of Political Science & International Relations at University of Yangon; Dr. Ashley South, Research Fellow at the Centre for Ethnic Studies and Development at Chiang Mai University; and Dr. Min Zaw Oo, Executive Director of Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security.    

Vikas Nagal, Research Assistant at CSEAS, introduced and welcomed all the eminent speakers. He briefly discussed the theme of the panel discussion and why Myanmar’s upcoming election is important for Southeast Asia. 

Electoral Democracy 
Dr. Nicholas Farrelly began his presentation by highlighting that the 2020 election is taking place under remarkable conditions. He stated that there are plenty of factors that need to be considered as this year has proven to be volatile and uncertain. He asserted the fact that the election authorities and the government have managed to work through the prevailing challenges to make the election possible is a testament to resilience and creativity. He discussed four key points on electoral democracy.  

The first was consistency. He expounded this by recalling that it was not long ago that Myanmar had no elections in place, and today the world is witnessing the third general election in a row. He said that the pattern for election dates has a plan with a constitutional framework around it which has allowed Myanmar to move past the dark decades of military dictatorship into a more consistent system of electoral action, which he affirmed is relatively more open and competitive than some of its neighbors.

The second key point, he highlighted, was the style of competition which has been largely constrained by the pandemic this time around. He asserted that the National League for Democracy (NLD) might be vulnerable in some ethnic areas where they had a strong political hold earlier. Still, there is no doubt that the NLD will come back to power again with a majority. 

The third point was international reputation. He stipulated that people outside Myanmar are less enamored to the concept of democracy when it appears to facilitate unfortunate and criminal activities. He drew attention to the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, which is currently being investigated and reported by many international organizations, including the United Nations. A new government coming out of this election might have a rather small chance of recovering from the diminished international reputation. He pointed out that such events have led to a big question mark on the international investment that was flowing into Myanmar earlier and the diminished relationship with its immediate neighbor, Bangladesh. He stressed that for this consideration, the 2020 election would be interesting to watch, especially to see a government with a fresh mandate.  

The fourth point was that electoral democracy itself is insufficient for Myanmar’s success. He said that there is a whole range of other issues that Myanmar needs to look at, such as poverty, inequality, ethnic inclusion, and climate change among others during a time when the nation is seeking to recover from the upheaval the pandemic has unleashed, which will also have huge political ramifications.  

Dr. Farrelly raised concern about the NLD’s approach toward democracy as the party has seemingly been promoting certain limited voices that might have weakened the government functionary. It is worrisome because this is the same party which played an important role in shifting Myanmar toward a more democratic and accountable system of governance. He stressed the fact that gerontocracy has been retained through this democratic evolution which is something that would not last decade after decade, and therefore, the government must encourage different kinds of voices. He said that the point of having such discussions is to build international support for a positive change while keeping in mind the imperfect circumstances created by the pandemic. He, however, maintained that it is important to appreciate Myanmar’s efforts in holding a free and fair election which will drive Myanmar to the next stage of reform and transformation.   

Economic Outlook and Foreign Relations  
Dr. Chaw Chaw Sein believed that the year 2020 has been a challenging year for Myanmar’s economy due to the effects of COVID-19 in addition to the upcoming general election in November. The NLD party, which won with a landslide victory in 2015, will face challenges as socio-economic conditions of the people have not changed much since. So, the question is, what can we expect from Myanmar’s economic outlook & foreign relations in 2020 elections and beyond? 

Dr. Sein stated that to become the go-to Asian financial destination, Myanmar has set up its economy with a series of reforms under the first transitional government, along with the 12-points economic policy. The NLD administration’s economic vision is to achieve inclusive and sustainable economic development with national reconciliation, equitable development, protection of natural resources and job creation. Hence, in implementing the economic outlook, Dr. Sein believed that the release of the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan in 2018 and the reorganization of the Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations in 2019 is crucial for channeling international financial institutions such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in order to secure soft loans, technical assistance, and policy support. Dr. Sein said that with the help of the World Bank, the Central Bank of Myanmar can draft a National Payment System Strategy to make an efficient payment and accounting system while supporting the fiscal stability and economic development.  

Dr. Sein believed that after taking office, the NLD government has faced several chronic political challenges: the new armed conflict with the Arakan Army along with human rights violation accusations and the current COVID-19 pandemic. With respect to the human rights violation accusations, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) countries have applied pressure on Myanmar, pushing it to accept the UN Fact-Finding Mission reports. To ease this accusation and to illustrate that Myanmar is not a country conducting genocide, state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi had appeared at the International Court of Justice in 2019. However, rejecting all these accusations, the US and EU revoked the Generalized System of Preference Status granted to Myanmar. The exodus of thousands of Bengali Muslim community into neighboring Bangladesh and the mistrust on the government’s handling of the conflict led to the reluctance of foreign investors to invest in Myanmar, and these political challenges led to a significant decline in foreign investment. 

Another challenge for the economic outlook is the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Bank Report on the global economic prospect suspects that the impact of the pandemic on the world economy has the deepest global recession with a baseline and vision at 5.2 percent. Every country is facing an economic crisis, and Myanmar as a developing country has had a huge impact.  

Since the democratic transition in 2011, Myanmar expected investment, especially from the West. However, EU and US interactions with Myanmar had implications due to human rights issues. This policy coincides with South Korea’s New Southern Policy. President Moon’s visit in September 2019 paved the way for the launch of the Korean Myanmar Industrial Complex, which can contribute to job creatin opportunity and technological transfer for Myanmar. 

Japan is another country which has been a major development partner for Myanmar in fulfilling the socio-economic development policy. Japan’s policy on Myanmar can be considered in the context of regional cooperation too, and since Myanmar’s political transition, Japan plays an important role in foreign direct investment, especially in the Special Economic Zone.  

Furthermore, India and Japan’s vision of Free Indo-Pacific region was established during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Japan in October 2018. Under the FYB strategy, Japan strategically uses its state offices development assistance to contribute actively to the prosperity, stability and peace of the international community as well as to protect the national interest of Japan. Myanmar’s Look East Policy will also focus on China as Myanmar cannot ignore China, considering it is Myanmar’s big neighbor. 

Interestingly, China ranked top in the foreign direct investment list, but it has some negative sentiments attached to it from the people of Myanmar, because of the extractive investment in hydropower dam, coal mining resulting in the environmental impact of Myanmar’s economy. However, Myanmar cannot neglect and miss the train of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is in the implementation process of the Special Economic Zone, Border Economic Cooperation Zone and the Yangon development, urban development project. As the corridor is linking the least and most developed areas of Myanmar, it is expected that the corridor will support the country’s economic outlook, and this might also contribute to the NLD’s economic vision. However, from the perspective of the local people, there are also some challenges regarding these investments.  

There are big challenges ahead of Myanmar’s economic outlook in the 21st century and there were high hopes for better times when NLD won the election, in addition to special investments from Western countries as Myanmar expected to create millions of jobs. However, the government has not achieved appreciable economic development. So, in return, the country has taken a turn to its Look East Policy. However, these Asian countries are also undergoing economic recession, and the global market will take time to recover. Thus, the foreign direct investment that Myanmar is expecting will be slow-paced, as every country in the world, including East Asia, is facing its own economic problems which in turn has led to unemployment for migrant workers. Hence, under the NLD government, it is a slow process to reach the economic outlook targets, but hopefully, after the election, there may be some positive changes.   

Minorities, the Peace Process and Federalism 
Dr. Ashley South began with an anecdote on his interactions with the populace in a non-state-controlled territory within Myanmar to highlight the perception that for many ethnic nationalities, the state is not necessarily the main focus of political legitimacy. This brings forth the question regarding the meaning of minorities and nationalities. 

For many of the elites, ethnic nationalities are far more normative over minorities. By giving this distinction, it provides connotations of implicit claims to sovereignty – sovereignty focused on self-determination of local sub-units that is independent of the main polity. Domestically, the main question for ethnic nationalities is how to achieve an effective federating process. Despite becoming independent in 1948, there are ‘unfinished businesses’ of state and nation-building. The lack of serious provisions makes achieving credible federating processes difficult. This ‘unfinished business’ is fundamental to understanding conflicts that have affected the nation for several decades. There is a need for a federal political settlement in resolving conflicts. However, the complexities of territorial-based ethnic segregation and fault lines of ethnic categorizations should not be discarded. There is a threat posed by the blanket homogenization and motherland sentiment that can lead to ethnic cleansings. A broad acceptance of the seven largest ethnic nationalities could be the initial start toward the acceleration of the peace process and welcomed the developments of the possible establishment of state constitutions. 

Dr. South spoke about the peace process by revisiting the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) of 2015, while agreeing with majority consensus of the agreement being not inclusive in large, he did believe it could be a model for a successful peace process. While there are a lot of caveats of the NCA being a failure, the government and the military insist on being the only vehicle for achieving peace within Myanmar. Despite no evidence pointing to the same, if the government is serious about its credibility, he suggested that the army and the government must address the issue of implementations with more seriousness.  

The main elements of the peace process are political dialogue, security sector monitoring, and interim arrangements. 

Political Dialogue: In historical development, Myanmar witnessed sub-national consultations in which ethnic communities were able to develop positions within the political dialogue. This was the first systematic sub-level consultation, in an otherwise normalized suppression done by the army. However, on a macro-level, this is not entirely credible in its conduct, and more participation should be ensured. 

Security Sector Monitoring: The Joint Monitoring Committee (JMC) is a failure due to lack of inputs from civil society actors and the military domination of the process makes it a dysfunctional organization. Therefore, it requires immediate reform. 

Interim Arrangements: By focusing on Article 25 of the NCA, Dr. South noted that the state acknowledges that several of the large ethnic organizations control extensive territory. While they are not internationally recognized, they do form a de-facto governance situation that delivers all services to the conflict-affected regions within the components of the governmental operations of Myanmar. While the NCA accommodates this situation, however, the problem is with its implementation as there is no agreed mechanism. 

He concluded with an optimistic note that following the August Union Peace Conference, the resultant agreement in principle to continue the NCA under the next government in 2021 may allow some of these issues to be resolved.   

The Role of Military in Politics 
Dr. Min Zaw Oo stated that the 2008 Constitution is the prime issue to tackle when it comes to the role of military in politics. Right before the transition from military rule to a hybrid democracy, the 2008 constitution was inaugurated, and the military implemented the questionable election in 2010. However, the new government after 2010 made a significant transitional arrangement and it eventually led to the election in 2015, which brought the NLD to power. So, how did the military involve itself in politics and especially in the elections in these two eras? 

Under the Union Solitary and Development Party (USDP) government, there was a special arrangement in the military – a removal of senior leaders who were then sent to the USDP and eventually became government officials. The set-up had a very significant impact on the sub-states and the union government. When the senior officials were moved to the USDP and became ministers and chief ministers of states and regional governments, they were confident. Many of these chief ministers practiced their own mandates and policies at a high level of confidence. Under the USDP government, the role of military in governance was inevitably reduced.  

Another significant event was when the Union Election Committee (UEC), led by former General Tin Aye, transformed the UEC to be more independent and conducted a free and fair election. He tried hard to make the 2015 election free and fair to an extent and allowed international observers to observe the election extensively. The electoral reform happened under him, and because of him, the military did not have any intervention in the UEC. However, the military had significant intervention right before the 2015 election, which was the transfer of Tatmadaw senior officers. A large number of Tatmadaw officers retired and were sent to USDP and became candidates, especially in the Shan state.  

Under the NLD government, there were some significant changes. Initially, the NLD and military were supposed to be in good terms, but there was an issue which was the extension of the tenure of the commander-in-chief. The military commission commissioned the extension, but it still needed the president’s signature to formalize it. But the president did not sign it. There was also no framework or body which allowed both the civil and military leaders to make policies jointly. These civil-military relations impacted the peace process as well, but still, the military involvement in the governance was quite limited. 

One of the significant changes in the military compared to the previous years was their engagements with the public. There has been an effort to promote the military into the public sphere and to gain public endorsement. Also, remarkably the military does not have any transition to the USDP this time around, and its interference in this election is less compared to other years. The military also prohibited the USDP and NLD to put up billboards in the vicinity of their battalions, and the connection between USDP and the military is less visible this time around. 

Dr. Oo opined that the coming election could be interesting and many projections are saying that NLD might win the majority of the seats, but he is not sure if it will be able to form the government. 

Vote of Thanks
At the end of a lively question & answer session, Hariharan C, Research Assistant at CSEAS, thanked all the speakers and Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen for participating in the discussion. He also thanked the university administration for extending all the necessary support to successfully organize the event. 

The report is prepared by CSEAS staff members – Vikas Nagal, Dishant Choudhary, Mihika Kothari, Hariharan C, Sanjana Dhar, and Harsh Mahaseth – and edited by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen in consultation with the speakers.