Since gaining independence from British Rule, Myanmar, then known as Burma, experienced years of civil unrest between various ethnic groups. Just within 8 months after independence, the country was plunged into a civil war as each ethnic group formed their own armies, fighting each other and the government. With such chaos and instability in the country, the military, also known as the Tatmadaw, saw itself as the only force of power to keep everything in control. This led to the first military coup in 1962, for which the military stayed in power for the next several years. When Aung San Suu Kyi and her party came to power in 2015 with a landslide victory, the road to democracy was looking bright for the young country. Aung San Suu Kyi was an icon and a hero for the people of Myanmar. She also has gained international recognition for her advocacy of liberalism and non-violence.
In the 2020 general elections, she and her party won again with 346 seats in parliament. This was more than the required 322 seats to form the next government. The opposition party, Union Solidarity and Development Party, also backed up by the military, only won 25 seats. Their victory proved that the people recognize them as the next running government. However, on February 1st, 2021, the day before she and her party were supposed to sit in parliament, the country was seized in a military coup. Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her party officials were detained and deposed. The military announced a year-long state of emergency, citing a “terrible fraud in voter list” has occurred and it is threatening the future of the country. Following the coup, mass protests broke out across the country, throwing Myanmar into violent political turmoil.
The voter list, according to the military, contained lots of inconsistencies. The military counted about 10.5 million instances of irregularities. They claimed that when looking at the compiled voter list and comparing it across multiple towns, they saw names repeated under the same national registration number. This suggests that people went outside of their voting zone and voted multiple times. They have also claimed that some of the names that appeared on the list do not associate back to a national identification, which meant that some of the people who voted did not actually have the right to vote. Of all of the ethnic groups living in Myanmar, not all of them are actually recognized by the government. These include the Burmese Chinese, Burmese Indian, Panthay, Rohingya people, Taungtha people, Anglo-Burmese people, and the Burmese Gorkhas. These groups of people would not be considered citizens of the state and therefore would not be able to vote.
The National Election Commission has pushed back these claims saying that there is no evidence of election fraud. According to the commission, once a person placed their votes, their finger would be inked during the voting process. This ink would appear on people’s skin after making contact with sunlight and it was supposed to last for a week. The ink could not be removed with water, soap, alcohol, or other kinds of cleaning products. This would’ve prevented people from voting more than once. Furthermore, COVID 19 traveling restrictions would have made it impossible for voters to register in multiple locations. The commission has also stated that ID cards are not required to be present at voting booths as long as people are able to prove their identity using other forms of documentation. None of the claims by either could be verified as the voter list was taken down by the commission for security purposes.
More importantly, the 2020 elections revealed the conflict between different ethnic groups which has been at the center of Myanmar’s political struggle for decades. Outside of the accusation of election fraud by the government, the credibility of the election can also be called out for the exclusion and disenfranchisement of minority groups. Due to recent conflict between these groups and the government, some parts of the country where its residents are predominantly minorities are barred from voting. This includes parts of the Shan, the Kachin, and the Rakhine state. The population in Myanmar is currently at about 54 million. Out of that number, there are 37 million registered voters. However, there are also about 2 million people who do not have the right to vote. The mass cancellation of voting for some parts of the country suggests that the elections in Myanmar are not completely free and fair in its nature.
The future for Myanmar still remains unclear and even with the upcoming 2023 election, there is no guarantee that the military will rightfully hand over the power to the winning party. It is crucial that Myanmar starts addressing the deep internal conflicts in the country. Free and fair elections cannot be possible without the recognition of all the groups living in the state. Without one of the fundamental elements of democracy, equal participation of the members of the state, it will be difficult for the government upholds itself as a truly democratic country.
Goodman, Jack. “Myanmar coup: Does the army have evidence of voter fraud?” BBC, February 5, 2021.
Maizland, Lindsay. “Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, January 31, 2022, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/myanmar-history-coup-military-rule-ethnic-conflict-rohingya.
“Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi’s party wins majority in election.” BBC, November 31, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-54899170.
“Statement from Myanmar military on state of emergency.” Reuters, January 31, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/myanmar-politics-military-statement-idUSKBN2A11A8.