The National League of Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in Myanmar’s 2015 election seemingly marked a huge milestone for a country that had once been governed by a military junta for over five decades. This electoral victory was a culmination of a series of political reforms beginning from 2011, when the junta officially dissolved and turned over power to a civilian-led parliament. International leaders such as Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon lauded NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as an icon for democracy, with many optimistic that Suu Kyi would facilitate a smooth transition away from authoritarianism.
This optimism was short lived. Since the election five years ago, the country has experienced little substantive change, with the military still retaining power at the grassroots level. Media censorship and imprisoning dissidents are common practices, and Suu Kyi continuously fails to recognize the military-led persecution of the Rohingya Muslim population. These failed democratic reforms and the added outlier of the second wave of COVID-19 makes Myanmar’s second ever multiparty election on November 8, 2020 even more contentious and significant.
Considering these high stakes, the upcoming election will likely further erode any remaining semblance of democracy in Myanmar. The NLD in recent years has already attempted to undermine electoral processes in order to preserve their governance through the veneer of championing democratic institutions like elections.
Lust and other political scholars believe that the widespread right to participate in elections is a key element of democracy; while a few restrictions like age are acceptable, populations cannot be disenfranchised on the basis of “cultural or biological attributes such as age, gender, race, or ethnicity” . During and after the 2010 elections, Rohingya were able to vote and run for office only if they possessed a temporary registration certificate— despite not being recognized citizens. This policy changed in 2015 when the government announced the certificates would expire, thus excluding around 700,000 Rohingya individuals from voting. Under these criteria, Myanmar’s disenfranchisement of the Rohingya minority is a covert violation of democratic standards. Voter identification laws in general are susceptible to abuse, especially when manipulated to exclude potential opposition voters.
Democratic erosion also occurs when governments undercut institutions of accountability, like the press. Nancy Bermeo, for instance, cites media freedoms and judicial autonomy as prime sites for democratic backsliding . In relation to elections, as this post explores, journalists play a key role in reporting election-related events and facilitating discourse, which some governments may perceive as a threat. In Myanmar, Burmese authorities undermined the power of the media by using COVID-19 to justify declaring journalism a nonessential business. Reporters were forced to follow stay-at-home orders, presenting significant obstacles for on-site reporters and newspaper distribution cycles.
Independent media outlets also play an important gate-keeping function in democracies; the lack of election coverage leading up to November 8 could give the government license to engage in more anti-democratic conduct. Additionally, the government has imposed restrictions on high speed internet services by blocking access to 3G and 4G in eight townships, citing security concerns. This has the effect of further preventing citizens from receiving information and coverage on the election.
Despite virtually all opposition parties requesting to delay the election due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Suu Kyi has insisted on keeping the November 8 date. This decision, made without any compromise with opposition groups, seems to be another part of the NLD’s political strategy to remain in power rather than a decision made in the best interests of democracy. With Myanmar’s soaring rate of infections keeping citizens from the ballot box, Suu Kyi stands to benefit from low turnout, which typically favors the status quo.
Given the electoral process has largely been shaped by the incumbent government, it’s expected that the NLD will win again in a deeply flawed and anti-democratic election. Lust, Ellen, “Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending theories of Democratic Backsliding,” USAID (June 2015).  Bermeo, Nancy, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (Jan 2016).