BANGKOK/YANGON, Jan 30 (The Straits Times/ANN): Two years of turmoil have unravelled a decade of progress in Myanmar, and the question now is whether its coming election – stage-managed by the junta – will make a difference.
Despite the armed conflict triggered by its February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s military regime is pushing ahead with preparations for fresh polls, likely by August, designed to perpetuate its control and sideline the popularly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
The junta plans to introduce proportional representation, a system that will ease the entry of smaller political parties that are theoretically easier for the military to control. On Thursday, it enacted a Political Parties Registration Law that would bar from election individuals or groups deemed to have committed “terrorist acts” or have been in contact with such groups.
This rules out large numbers of NLD members who have, by virtue of their involvement with the National Unity Government (NUG), been branded as terrorists by the regime.
In a junta meeting on Jan 23, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing reiterated the need to compile “correct” lists of voters, and to hold an election that would allow people to cast their ballots without threat and coercion.
The reality is that intimidation and coercion are prevalent and expected to intensify. Even in cities with a veneer of normality like Yangon, armed soldiers and policemen have accompanied officials going from house to house to conduct a pre-polls census. Local news reports say at least 10 people conducting these voter counts have been killed, likely by groups resisting the junta. The junta claims that at least 13 election commission offices have been damaged in their attacks.
The NUG has threatened to prosecute junta collaborators under the country’s counter-terrorism law, for it also regards the junta as a terrorist outfit.
Neither free nor fair
There is little expectation that the coming election will be free and fair. Ousted state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is serving a total of 33 years’ jail on charges such as corruption and breaching pandemic rules, which rights groups decry as trumped-up. Key politicians who resisted the junta have been prosecuted or are on the run.
Former Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah has dubbed it a “sham election” that will likely worsen Myanmar’s conflict and economic chaos.
His view was shared by Mr Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks casualties and prisoners of the regime. He expects even more violence to be committed in the name of the election.
“The military will use excessive force, and extreme violence if necessary, to force votes in its sham election,” he told The Straits Times.
“In more rural areas, the military may use even scorched earth tactics to intimidate the population throughout 2023. The real question is how to stop these atrocities. The international community should be looking much deeper at targeted sanctions and arms embargoes.”
Yet, an arms embargo has been elusive from a global community preoccupied by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Russia – a United Nations Security Council member and major weapons manufacturer – continued to deliver military aircraft to the Myanmar regime after the coup.
With lifelines to China, India, Russia as well as neighbouring Asean countries kept open, the Myanmar junta has shrugged off Western sanctions imposed so far on its key leaders and cronies.
Two years after the coup, the only constant that has emerged is a vicious multi-fronted war in which the two key rivals are bent on winning but can’t. While some of Myanmar’s oldest and most powerful ethnic armed groups like the Karen National Liberation Army have been actively fighting the regime’s troops, others, like the United Wa State Army, have stayed above the fray. The landscape involves multiple powerful parties, complicating external efforts to forge peace.
Despite initial hopes by Asean to lay the groundwork for political negotiation, there is little appetite for talk.
“The predictions that the resistance would somehow back down are unrealistic, given the depth of resentment that people feel towards the military,” says Dr Shona Loong, a lecturer in political geography at the University of Zurich. “Both sides are still locked into quite an existential battle. Both sides are largely not willing to compromise. As a result, the tactics of the military have gotten more and more brazen and brutal.”
The military regime is increasingly relying on air strikes in areas where its ground troops have difficulty gaining access. According to non-governmental organisation Myanmar Witness, which documents human rights violations in the country, 135 air strikes were conducted from July to December 2022.
This surge in air raids has been accompanied by an increase in arson, a spokesman for the Myanmar Witness told ST. In December 2022, it recorded more than 132 deliberately set fires – a staggering 250 per cent increase from November and the highest since it started keeping track in September 2021.
“These figures represent the destruction of countless homes and livelihoods, and appear to be a strategy of mass displacement of civilians,” said the spokesman.
More than 1.5 million of the 56 million population are currently displaced across Myanmar, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This includes almost 800,000 people in the north-western areas of Chin, Sagaing and Magway, where the military has burned down more than 31,000 houses in a bid to punish as well as decimate local support for the resistance.
As a result, more people are going hungry, or relying on poorer diets. A December 2022 report by the United States-based International Food Policy Research Institute found that 4 per cent of households were in moderate to severe hunger in July and August 2022.
As the human toll grows, the hurdles for a transition to peace grow. Dr Loong wonders what will be left of the social fabric because the scorched earth campaigns will leave entire communities – including resistance fighters – homeless even if peace is achieved.
“Even if the war were to end, we have young people who, for the last two years, may have stopped their education and stopped working and joined the resistance, and now they don’t have a stable place to return to.
“There are huge humanitarian concerns. Beyond humanitarian concerns, there are concerns for the future.”
Away from the war zones, Myanmar’s entry into the Financial Action Task Force’s money-laundering blacklist in 2022 has made it trickier for businesses to operate, while there is an exodus of workers heading overseas to survive.
No other option?
Amara Thiha, a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo who grew up under military rule in Myanmar, suggests that the coming election is the only way for conditions to improve – however flawed the polls may be.
“A military administration will never, ever want to give up,” he told ST. “What will happen if we do not have an election? What if we are stuck here? What if a lot more villages are burned down?”
He stressed that an election may not ease the violence, but it will bring in a “constitutionally mandated civilian administration” and possibly open political space for new solutions, including the involvement of international mediators.
He also thinks that this post-polls administration would be better placed to restore the role of civil society and non-governmental organisations, whose functions have been severely constrained by the Myanmar junta.
It is unclear what Asean will do at this juncture. The 10-nation bloc that Myanmar is a member of has achieved little in its original road map on this crisis issued in April 2021. Two consecutive special envoys – from Brunei and Cambodia – have neither succeeded in meeting Ms Suu Kyi, nor in securing political concessions that would pave the way for a lasting solution.
Indonesia, as Asean chairman in 2023, will set up its own special envoy office headed by its foreign minister, Ms Retno Marsudi. While Indonesia has taken a relatively tougher stance towards the Myanmar junta, it will have to grapple with the conflicting views of Asean members towards this election. Thailand, for example, has shown a willingness to recognise and work with Myanmar’s military administration.
Regardless of how they feel about the election, members of the international community should prepare for it, says Mr Amara.
“They should understand that, no matter what, the election will go on. They should start to prepare their strategy, how to engage and who to interact with in the coming scenario.
“Because this time next year, we are going to have new stakeholders.”
Asean, which has shut junta chief Min Aung Hlaing out of its summits so far, now needs to determine its collective response to the coming election and the next administration. - The Straits Times/ANN