Will Military Conflict in Myanmar Derail its Elections?

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Will Military Conflict in Myanmar Derail its Elections?

Armed conflict could jeopardize upcoming polls in the country.

Can Myanmar have true democracy without genuine peace? Widespread armed conflict, including intensified civil wars in the northern Kachin and eastern Shan States, will challenge the state appointed election commission to organize polls across vast areas of the country if and when constitutionally mandated elections are held in November. An incomplete and fraying peace process will jeopardize electoral security, maximum voter participation and the democratic legitimacy of the results.

Myanmar’s military, or tatmadaw, has quietly launched its largest war effort in the Shan State’s ethnic Kokang region since the country achieved independence from colonial rule in 1948, according to a recent Jane’s Defense Weekly report. The campaign against the rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army represents the first time the tatmadaw has used large-scale combined-arms operations involving mechanized infantry, artillery, armor and air power during six decades of civil war, the Jane’s report said. It claimed “hundreds” of government troops have been killed since hostilities erupted on February 9.

At the same time, increased fighting between Kachin Independence Army rebels and government forces in the country’s northern region continues to displace large civilian populations, with over 100,000 people believed to have fled their homes since armed hostilities resumed in June 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire, according to recent reports. The tatmadaw’s scorched earth tactics in Kachin State, including aerial bombardments of civilian areas, has provided a stark counter-narrative to the quasi-civilian government’s professed pursuit of peace.

Ethnic Karen, Arakan and Palaung groups continue to sporadically clash with government forces, while a June 4 cross-border assault by ethnic Naga rebels that killed Indian soldiers and motivated a retaliatory attack from New Delhi underscored the lack of central government control in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing Region. The narcotics-dealing United Wa State Army, meanwhile, seems poised to resume its fight with the tatmadaw from the Shan State territory it runs as a de facto state amid reports and photos it has received heavy arms shipments from uncertain sources in neighboring China.

Since taking power in 2011, President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration has prioritized achieving a nationwide ceasefire through its European government-funded Myanmar Peace Center. In March, his government hailed a draft peace accord struck with 16 armed ethnic groups. Many well-armed rebel organizations that control sizable territories, however, declined to sign the draft. Bertil Lintner, an expert on the country’s ethnic politics, wrote in a May report critiquing the draft accord’s announcement that “Myanmar’s civil war has not been this intense since the government launched offensives against ethnic Karen and communist forces in the 1980s.”

Peace prospects took another hit last week when military appointees representing 25 percent of the national legislature voted against enacting major amendments to the 2008 constitution. Some ethnic groups said prior to the vote that they would not sign onto a national ceasefire agreement or enter into political dialogue without substantial charter changes, including allowances for federalism. It wasn’t clear if any of the 16 signatories intended to back away from the draft accord, but top ethnic peace negotiator Nai Hong Sar said the military’s veto had damaged “already weak trust between stakeholders.”

Some analysts have speculated the military could suspend or cancel the elections, nominally for reasons of security but also to forestall a United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) poor showing, if a national ceasefire was not in place by November, when the polls must legally be held. Recent signs indicate the military intends to allow the polls to go ahead, despite rising instability and conflict. In a June 18 meeting with Germany’s ambassador to Myanmar, Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reaffirmed his commitment to “multi-party democracy”, with the caveat the military must maintain a political role until the country is at peace, according to state media reports.

Western governments will take solace in the opposition National League for Democracy’s participation in the polls, even though party leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not be legally eligible to serve as president and her party’s distinct lack of alternative leaders and capable technocrats. Suu Kyi’s halcyon days as an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner have faded, as she consistently fails to stake out strong moral positions on issues sensitive to the military, including plight of the ethnic Rohingya and the armed conflict in Kachin State. Suu Kyi will not campaign in Rakhine State, where vast numbers of Rohingya have been disenfranchised by cancellation of their identification documents, according to news reports.

While Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to win the election, the party will likely lose ground in ethnic areas it carried at the annulled 1990 elections. That may cost the party an outright majority and force it into a coalition with the ruling USDP. And while the upcoming polls will certainly be more free and fair than the rigged 2010 elections that the NLD boycotted and catapulted military candidates to power, they will likewise not be fully representative of the popular will without voting in various ethnic areas still at war with the government.