Myanmar democracy

A look ahead to Myanmar GE 2020: Ethnic parties and storms of discontent

With the Myanmar General Election slated for November, five years of stalled peace negotiations, broken promises and stunted economic prosperity for ethnic minority groups may prove the undoing of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party

Mary Banfield and Morris Averill
July 20, 2020
A look ahead to Myanmar GE 2020: Ethnic parties and storms of discontent
A member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party sits at the souvenir shop of NLD headquarters in Yangon in 2018. Photo: EPA-EFE/Nyein Chan Naing

Five years is a lifetime in politics, nowhere more so than in Myanmar.

In November 2015, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi took to the podium a national hero as National League for Democracy (NLD) leader having delivered Myanmar, a ‘pariah state’ for decades, into a parliamentary democracy following a landmark election victory.

Today, approaching the recently announced November 2020 General Election shrouded in failed promises, scandal and controversy, the NLD faces losing their absolute parliamentary majority as their shortcomings in government have reignited national ethnic divisions.

“What I expect to see in 2020 is a growth of seats won by the ethnic parties in the State Assemblies,” said Moe Thuzar, former Myanmar Diplomat and international fellow at Yale University’s MacMillan Centre.  

Myanmar’s long history of civil war and ethnic divides defines the political agenda. From Rakhine in the northwest to northern Kachin, down the eastern border to the southern tip, war rages in 11 of 14 States and Regions, impacting one in three townships.  

The NLD’s 2015 election campaign promised to deliver peace, prosperity, and decentralised power. During that election, the nation united behind the powerful movement towards democracy and reform, with the party sweeping to power with 79.4% of elected seats, with an absolute majority in the Union’s Upper and Lower Houses. 

Their platform drew support from across the political spectrum, including minority communities for whom many languished in poverty and war. But in government, many feel the NLD has failed to deliver to those people that placed their trust in the party.

Between 2015 and 2017 national poverty reduced from 48.2% to 24.8% as a flood of foreign direct investment emerged in the democratising nation, yet many ethnic states were largely left behind in this development. Chin State still records 58% of people languishing in poverty and Rakhine State 41%.

It’s in those states, along with other ethnic minority-dominated areas, that the NLD looks vulnerable as discontent builds following failures to deliver on critical promises of peace and prosperity. While the NLD promised economic reform, commentators are rolling their eyes unable to identify a clear vision.

“What economic policy? That’s the big question,” said Thuzar, who believes it took the NLD too long to implement election promises into action. “After 2015 the NLD promised a manifesto outlining economic reform. That turned out to be a 12-point economic policy which was not developed into strategy until 2018.”

“The Sustainable Development Plan [2018] did announce a raft of social reforms; a new welfare safety net, including unemployment benefits. Yet the budget for social allocation has been strikingly low, particularly compared to defence,” added Thuzar. 

While Western democracies pride themselves on the separation of church and state, Myanmar politics is shaped by religion and ethnic identity.

A 2019 report found 52% of constituents wouldn’t vote for a candidate from a different religion, while 33% wouldn’t vote for someone from another ethnicity. To get a grip on Myanmar politics, according to Dr Alistair D.B. Cook of Nanyang Technological University, “firstly, you have to discard the notion of traditional left-right divides and recognize the priorities are very different.”

Myanmar’s population is diverse. Buddhism is the most common religion (89.2%), followed by Islam, Christianity, Hindu, with Animism still practiced. Ethnically there are 135 groups, with Bamar being the most populist at 68% of the population. It’s the Bamar who’ve held power since independence in 1948, today dominating the NLD, the former governing pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as well as the powerful military itself. 

As part of some of the longest running civil wars in the world, clashes between the military and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) remain widespread across the country, and in the first six months of this year, 608 clashes largely between the Military and EAO’s were recorded across the country in 10 out of 14 states and regions.

Politically, the country is divided into 21 partially-elected assemblies known as Hluttaws, with Regional Hluttaws located within the Bamar-dominated areas, while State Hluttaws are largely drawn around ethnic minorities.

“Outside the Bamar regions, to the east, west, north and south, State Assemblies reflect greater ethnic representation, including the war-torn Rakhine and Chin States,” said Hunter Marston, PhD Candidate at Australian National University with a focus on Southeast Asian affairs.

The key to prosperity across Myanmar’s many ethnic minority states is peace, according to Marston, something which remains highly elusive. In 2016, a ceasefire was negotiated by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government with less than half of the EAOs, with commentators arguing that the deal failed to address key political and security issues including equality and self-determination.

“Unfortunately, the NLD has been unable to build on the work of the previous government.  Their scorecard shows there’s been virtually no further progress on the peace accord,” he said.

It took two years for the former USDP government to agree the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight EAOs – later increased to ten – with signatures inked in October 2015. The signatories didn’t include the largest EAO, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a shadowy economy with 30,000 soldiers funded by the illicit trade of drugs and jade. However, in a symbolic win, the UWSA was brought into the accord.  

Constitutional changes need 75% support from parliament, so unless the military back the changes – any reforms are doomed

“Aung San Suu Kyi rebooted her father’s vision of a peace accord, moulded at the Panglong Conference in 1947 … She simply abolished the Myanmar Peace Centre, the negotiating team appointed by former [USDP] Prime Minister Thein Sein,” said Marston.

Consequently, with the relations built over years between negotiating parties abruptly severed, several of the EAOs walked away from the table. Today, the peace process remains stalled. In a final effort, mere months before the upcoming election, the Union Peace Conference is set to be held in August. Ten of the sixteen EAOs will attend, others, including the Rakhine Arakan Army, are off the attendees list.

Central to those peace talks are the EAO’s call for government reform and decentralisation. Decentralisation includes increasing the powers of the state and region hluttaws that feature stronger ethnic minority representation, currently only authorised to collect land tax and control planning. It’s the government who retains, through the President’s appointment of Chief Ministers, effective control of State budget spending.

“Constitutional changes need 75% support from parliament, so unless the military back the changes – any reforms are doomed,” said Marston. In an idiosyncrasy of Myanmar politics, the military holds 25% of the national government seats as part of the 2008 military-drafted constitution, handing them de facto veto power on any amendments.

“So, one could argue that the NLD’s attempt to push through [constitutional reform] legislation in February and March 2020 was largely a symbolic gesture,” Marston added. 

Members of Myanmar’s parliament vote on whether to reduce the number of legislative seats reserved for the military during a session at the Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) in Naypyidaw on March 10. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

That lack of redistribution of power has been a bitter pill to swallow for ethnic minorities, and will rally support for the ethnic parties. So deep is the discontent that a big shakeup is predicted, and small ethnic parties, once divided, now form coalitions. 

In 2015, 93 political parties registered for the general election. In that election, three small ethnic parties in Chin State fielded national candidates, none were successful. In 2020, the Chin National Democratic Party, the Chin Progressive Party and the Chin National League for Democracy have found common ground, merging into the Chin National League for Democracy, intending to run in over 50 seats. Also eying over 80 seats are the new Kachin State People’s Party, a merger of three previous Kachin groups, who believe by broadening their voter appeal they’ll increase their representation from one national MP. 

Currently 11% of parliament is represented by Ethnic Minority Parties, with the largest two being the Arakan National Party (22 seats) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (15).  

“I would expect ethnic parties to gain a significant share of votes in 2020 at the national level, probably shy of doubling their number of seats, but such an outcome is not inconceivable,” said Marston.  

That would put the NLD without an option but to form a coalition government. In May 2020, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and the People’s Party offered to form a coalition government with the NLD should they need to – an offer resoundingly rejected. “The NLD has no intention of forming a coalition government for now,” said NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shinas in response.

The question is, however, in the eventuality of a hung parliament would the NLD form a coalition with the USDP? That presents an ethical dilemma for a party once regarded as a champion of national peace and reconciliation.

In 2015, the USPD successfully split off the NLD’s vote after claiming their policy on “race and religion” was soft, with the USPD endorsed Myanmar’s ultra-hardline nationalist Buddhist monks. That association remains firm, and so adding to NLD fears is that the opposition party will run a dog whistling campaign based on fear and hate in November.  

“I may be cynical, but in the next few months we’re likely to see a rise in hate speech and fake news with targeted attacks on MPs coming from the USDP,” said Marston. “Adding to that, a message of ‘we are the guardian of the country’.”

Such tactics will surely inflame ethnic tensions, and will potentially tarnish the NLD’s already smeared reputation further should they later form a coalition with the USDP. 

In August, the NLD will launch their campaign slogans hoping voters will buy it. If all else fails, the NDL will look to rely on the strength of their name and history, said Cook, confident in the knowledge there is no other party with broad enough appeal to lead the government. 

“I think the reality that the NLD will take to the election is, ‘there’s no other game in town'”.

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