Are Myanmar’s highly anticipated general elections, widely touted as “historic” by diplomats, pundits and media, doomed to fail just like previous polls?
A surprise proposal floated this week by the military-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC) to postpone the November 8 polls has raised troubling questions about the military-backed quasi-civilian government’s commitment to the electoral process and rang alarm bells in Western capitals invested in a successful democratic transition through the ballot box.
On October 13, UEC chairman and 45-year military veteran Tin Aye suggested in a meeting with political parties that the polls be delayed, either nationwide or in select constituencies, due to monsoon rain-induced flooding and landslides.
The UEC then backed away from the proposal amid strong resistance from the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition, the main challenger to the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP’s position on the proposal to delay the vote was not immediately clear.
The UEC later issued a statement acknowledging that a delay could cause “some consequences” and vowed to stick to its original November 8 time table. Political analysts were quick to note that the UEC did not waver in holding a national referendum on a new military-drafted constitution in 2008, a mere week after the extraordinary death, destruction, and dislocation wrought by Cyclone Nargis. The killer storm, Myanmar’s worst-ever natural disaster, resulted in an estimated 138,000 deaths and severely affected over 1.5 million people, according to the United Nations.
The proposed postponement for a comparatively minor disaster has raised speculation about possible ulterior motives. The UEC’s trial balloon proposal notably coincided with President Thein Sein’s failure to secure a nationwide ceasefire agreement ahead of the polls, despite two years of negotiations and strong Western backing. The limited accord, inked on October 15, included only eight of 16 proposed groups and excluded active fighting forces such as the Kachin Independence Organization, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Kokang-led Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, among other armed groups.
In an election outcome where neither the USDP nor NLD wins an outright majority, ethnic-based political parties could hold the key to forming a ruling coalition. Yangon-based analysts believe Thein Sein needed a truly national ceasefire agreement to convince ethnic political party leaders that a USDP-led government with minority ethnic representation would be their best hope for achieving an autonomy-granting peace deal. In a sign of Thein Sein’s desperation for such an agreement, his negotiators had recently acquiesced to ethnic demands for future talks on the long-divisive issue of federalism. On the hustings, Suu Kyi suggested a NLD-led government would offer a sweeter deal.
Without a comprehensive truce and with renewed government offenses against non-signatory groups, the UEC has moved to circumscribe the ethnic vote for reasons of security. A day before the ceasefire’s official signing ceremony in Naypyidaw, the UEC cancelled voting in some 600 village tract areas – predominantly in the Kachin and Shan states where rebel groups are most active. Even with the new ceasefire in place, the cancellations were much larger than those ordered in conflict areas during the rigged 2010 elections that handed power from the previous ruling junta to the USDP. The local Myanmar Times predicted the UEC’s cancellations would block “millions” of ethnic voters from casting their ballots. (Nearly a million ethnic Rohingya Muslims were stripped of their voting rights under pressure from Buddhist nationalists earlier this year).
As a parallel controversy mounts over UEC-compiled voter lists, which threaten to disenfranchise over ten million more eligible voters, the UEC could refloat its postponement proposal citing multiple reasons, including floods, security threats, sectarian tensions, and voter registration problems, some analysts predict. Any delay would likely reflect a growing USDP realization that their candidates are poised to lose without widespread and systematic vote-rigging which, unlike the sham 2008 referendum and 2010 elections, will this time be scrutinized by over 1,000 whistle-blowing international election monitors.
International community concerns are rising about the viability of the polls. On September 22, the United Nations issued a directive restricting non-critical staff travel to Myanmar due to expected “electoral-related disruptions” between polling day and the November 22 announcement of the results. Major international NGOs in Yangon have readied contingency plans to evacuate their staff in the case of rampant electoral violence. On Wednesday, the White House said it would dispatch U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes to Myanmar “to discuss preparations for, and U.S. expectations of,” the elections. He’ll likely be met with reciprocal UEC explanations for why the polls could yet be postponed.