May 2023

Polls apart

Myanmar’s military rulers seem set on holding elections, despite controlling less than half the country. Nicholas Nugent considers the viability of sucha poll amid a raging civil war

In an effort to seek legitimacy, the military junta that seized power in Myanmar on 1 February 2021, ousting elected politicians, has proclaimed its determination to hold national elections. Its original plan was to go to the polls in July, but on the second anniversary of the coup d’état that brought it to powerit extended the state of emergency under which it rules by six months. November is now considered its target date.

Holding elections to consolidate their power has been tried several times before by military leaders in Myanmar. And in neighbouring Bangladesh and Thailand, leaders who came to power in military coups subsequently reinforced control by engineering victory in elections.

The problem in Myanmar is that the army, known as the Tatmadaw, controls so little of the country – estimates suggest 50 per cent at most – that polling will be virtually impossible.

Control of the major cities is questionable, recalling the situation in Vietnam in the 1960s when territory the army commanded during the day reverted to Viet Cong guerrillas at night. Many districts in Myanmar are not even controlled in daylight and some areas along the Indian, Chinese and Thai borders are beyond the army’s reach, as evidenced by the aerial bombardments by the country’s airforce.

A regime that bombs its population from the air is in no position to manage voting on the ground.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing clings to the belief that the coup he led was justified because the civilian leaders elected the previous year did not want to share power with the Tatmadaw. The coup’s objective was to remove the National League for Democracy led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, which won the 2020 elections decisively. General Min Aung Hlaing is said to detest Ms Suu Kyi and all she stands for.

protestors on the streets of Myanmar1
DRACONIAN: Thousands of street protestors have been imprisoned

Ms Suu Kyi, who led the democracy movement from 1988, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and then the government elected in 2020, is now a prisoner of the regime, locked away for up to 33 years on a series of manufactured charges, ensuring she can take no part in any future elections. To her supporters, she is a martyr for the cause of democracy.

In place of her elected government has arisen a shadowy alternative National Unity Government (NUG), comprising previously elected parliamentarians and representatives of Myanmar’s host of ethnic ‘organisations’ or armies that achieved only limited recognition and no share in power during earlier periods of military rule or even under Ms Suu Kyi’s government.

The United Nations has not accorded Myanmar’s UN seat to the military government’s nominee. It continues to be occupied by Ms Suu Kyi’s nominee, Kyaw Moe Tun, who told journalists of his people’s determination to end what he described as ‘this military dictatorship’. He urged governments cooperating with the military regime to ‘listen to the people, the voices of Myanmar, and pay respect to their wishes’.

The United Nations has not accorded Myanmar’s UN seat to the military government’s nominee

Last December the UN Security Council voted 12-0 for an immediate end to all forms of violence in Myanmar and de-escalation of tensions. China, India and Russia, three nations that are believed to have supplied the regime with arms, abstained. The resolution called on Myanmar’s military to release all arbitrarily detained prisoners, including President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The resolution echoed calls in April 2021 by the Southeast Asian ASEAN organisation, from which Myanmar is currently suspended, for a cessation of violence and for dialogue among concerned parties facilitated by an ASEAN-appointed mediator, on which there has been no apparent progress.

Myanmar is currently in the throes of a civil war little reported because of difficult communications and restrictions on journalists visiting. Enough information reaches the outside world to make it clear that the regime faces mass civil unrest in a war that has claimed an estimated three thousand lives and displaced up to a million of the country’s citizens. Thousands of street protestors have been imprisoned.

Episodes of violence include aerial bombing throughout the country, though with a concentration in the north towards the border with China.

The impoverished Chin State adjoining India has been especially badly affected with aerial bombardments virtually destroying the town of Thantlang. In April more than 168 civilians, including many children, died when an Mi-35 helicopter gunship opened fire on a community hall in the village of Pa Zi Gyi in north-western Sagaing district, an attack the regime justified as targeting an anti-government PDF, or people’s defence force.

The actions of Myanmar’s military were described by a former UN Rapporteur as ‘an all-out war against the entire population of Myanmar… a crime against humanity’.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

The ICG calls the proposed polls ‘a mechanism for the regime to rewrite history and reassert military control over politics’

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), polls ‘will almost certainly intensify the post-coup conflict, as the regime seeks to force them through and resistance groups seek to disrupt them’.

The groupcalls the proposed polls ‘a mechanism for the regime to rewrite history and reassert military control over politics’. The junta’s aim appears to be to exercise power through its civilian proxy organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

There would be no role for the popular National League for Democracy (NLD) in an election organised by the military.

The bombing of Thantlang in Chin State - Photo credited to CHRO (Chin Human Rights Organisation)

Under the constitution the military drew up in 2008, General Ming Aung Hlaing would have to surrender control of the Tatmadaw if, as is widely believed, he wants to become the nation’s president. The constitution aims to prevent any one person becoming all-powerful by providing that both offices should not be held by the same person.

Recent visitors to Myanmar describe a country impoverished by the raging conflict but also by its isolation from the rest of the world. Few foreigners visit even as tourists, resulting in a sharp fall in the value of the currency, the kyat.

A BBC correspondent allowed on a highly restricted itinerary writes: ‘It is impossible not to sense how on edge Myanmar is, even in the places the military believes are safest for its troops. Police officers on the streets nearly all carry automatic weapons…[and] stay behind their sandbag fortifications, well aware of the danger from drive-by shootings or assassination attempts.’

Sadly, there is no sign of the civil war ending soon, or of military rule coming to an end. If the junta proceeds with it election plan it will be no more than an attempt to stamp a mark of respectability on a regime notable only for its ruthlessness.

Nicholas Nugent reported for the BBC from Burma, as Myanmar was previously known, during an earlier anti-military uprising. He is co-author of CultureSmart! Myanmar