News | Social Movements / Organizing - State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southeast Asia Myanmar’s Election Under the Threat of Right-Wing Populism

The fledgling democracy remains caught between ethnic tensions, military influence, and deep civil mistrust



Nwet Kay Khine,

Supporters of National League for Democracy celebrate at party headquarters after the general election in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2020.
Supporters of National League for Democracy celebrate at party headquarters after the general election in Yangon, Myanmar, November 9, 2020. picture alliance / REUTERS | Shwe Paw Mya Tin

Life under Myanmar’s military dictatorship, which has existed in various guises since 1962, has been harsh, which is why people wish to send the military back into the barracks as soon as possible. On 8 November 2020 they chose the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, as the winning party in the country’s general election held every five years. Voter turnout was high in both Burmese-dominated areas in Central Myanmar and the other seven states representing the seven major ethnic groups: Kachin, Kayar, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and the Shan from the frontier areas bordering China, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India.

Burmese represented over 68 percent of all 37 million eligible  voters, and the Burmese-dominated areas almost unanimously cast their vote for the NLD. Its main rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which grew out of a civilian branch of the military junta, faced its toughest loss since the political transition began in 2010. The NLD had gained 391 seats by 11 November, exceeding the number of seats required to form a new government (322), while the USDP won only 22 seats. Ethnic parties from different states were also able to boost representation, with the biggest share (13 seats) going to the Shan National League for Democracy which stood for election in the Shan constituencies.

Nwet Kay Khine is a post-doctoral fellow in the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies sponsored by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.

The election victory marked the beginning of a difficult path ahead for the NLD, as there are new signs of threats from the army and the ultra-nationalist parties. The elections offered more chances for the right-wing populists under the emblem of the USDP as well as their allied parties to spread hateful messages. Many local election observers had warned that a well-connected ultra-nationalist network was assembling on the ground. Although weaker than it was under the USDP government, it still possesses considerable strength. The important question now is whether the winning party, the NLD, has enough courage and strength to stop the further spread of racism so deeply rooted in many parts of Myanmar’s society.

Inflammatory Messages and Renewed Tensions Between Government and Military

Less than a week before the election, Myanmar’s voters were caught in verbal sparring between the military and the government. In an interview with the Popular, a privately owned media outlet, the Chief of the Army Min Aung Hlaing questioned the credibility and impartiality of the Union Election Commission (UEC), accusing it of widespread violations of laws and procedures in the pre-voting process. In response, a government spokesperson slammed the Army Chief’s remarks as groundless accusations and warned that it violated the 2008 constitution, which states that “civil servants, including the military and police, must be free from party politics”. The local news publication Irrawaddy interpreted the army’s open criticism as suggesting that “if the NLD wins again in this election, the military will not sit idly by”. Many observers forecasted that the post-election period would be a tough road for the NLD even if it won with a landslide majority as it did in 2015. After all, this is not the first open battle between the army and the government while jointly administering Myanmar.

Grassroots organizations expressed deep concerns not only for election day but also for the post-election period after witnessing myriad orchestrated efforts of online and offline hatemongering, presumably connected to the military proxy party USDP and the radical Buddhists networks across the country. As in 2015, none of these groups work in isolation. During the 2015 election campaign, USDP supporters backed by extremist Buddhist monks sought to dampen the NLD’s lead. A surge in right-wing activity gained speed around September of this year, marked by a spree of hate speech against the NLD in various formats from printed brochures, books, flags, and videos, to pictures and social media posts. Although Facebook removes the hate messages posted by the instigators, the radicals’ reach is far and wide. They also harness the influence of Buddhist monks from their own network to urge followers to vote for the USDP. In some townships in upper Myanmar in particular, supporters of other NLD opponents joined with USDP members in xenophobic attacks on the NLD and accusations that is a pro-Muslim party.

Nevertheless, the NLD counted only two Muslims among its 1,143 candidates, both of whom won despite facing extreme pressure from racist groups. Some voters thought that the NLD chose to be different in 2020 due to international pressure. While fear of Muslim domination is purposefully manipulated by nationalist parties, the participation of Muslim candidates decreased from over 50 in 2015 to 30 in 2020. In total, nine parties including the NLD have Muslim representatives, whereas the Rohingya lost the right to vote and even representation after the government abrogated their identification cards in 2016. Muslim candidates represent only 0.53 percent of the 5,651 candidates, while Muslims as a whole constitute 2.3 percent of Myanmar’s population according to the latest census.

To increase their chance of representation, the biggest dilemma facing the Muslim community is whether they should promote Muslim participation in parliament by voting for Muslim candidates, or simply vote for someone who is dedicated to defending the human rights of marginalized population like Muslims regardless. Again, the Muslim parties are some of the weakest in terms of campaigning, as many of the candidates do not know how to use social media such as Facebook properly and do not dare to spread messaging openly due to fear that even moderate campaign messages will be interpreted in the wrong way and lead to an escalation of hate.

The resurgence of existing radical networks became clear after U Wirathu, leader of the older radical groups, showed up at a police station in Yangon in late October after hiding for more than a year. This fugitive nationalist figure was convicted on sedition charges in absentia in June 2019, but he stopped hiding just a few days before the election. Observers noted his tactical action with caution, as he used his court appearances to lobby for the USDP and attack the NLD. His message on his first day in public alerted the media that he was back with his usual xenophobic tone, telling the crowd: “I would like to ask my fellow monks around the country to ask their followers to vote for the parties that work to protect the country’s race and religion.”

This kind of rhetoric has persistently been amplified by USDP leaders in recent months. It is an open secret in every town of Myanmar that the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (also known as “Mabatha”) targets the Muslim population by calling for boycotts of Muslim businesses and rejects the notion of coexistence with Muslims. Although the Army Chief questioned the accountability of the ruling party, he apparently dismissed the USDP’s violation of the Election Code of Conduct that all parties must abide by. Recently, president of the USDP Than Htay claimed his family lineage was racially pure, saying: “There are no long noses or blue eyes or curly hair or charcoal-coloured skin in my family”, and branding Aung San Suu Kyi’s marriage to a UK citizen as a national disgrace. More importantly, Burma Monitor, a watchdog of extreme nationalism, reported that over 213 extreme nationalists with records of being involved in anti-Muslim protests and campaigns ran in the election, representing 15 parties in alliance with the USDP.

A Love and Hate Relationship between the Army and the Ruling Party

During the election campaign, the orchestrated movement of right-wing nationalists became more visible in both upper and lower Myanmar. Even if the NLD overcomes all these challenges, its future engagement with the army will not be easy. Recently, the civil-military relationship between the NLD-led government and the army turned sour as both sides geared up for the election.

The military took 15 years to draft the current constitution, ensuring its role as the guardian of the nation. These appointed military delegates, who occupy 166 seats representing 25% of the total, are authorized to decide over the terms and pace of political liberalization initiated in the legislature. As any change to the constitution requires the approval of more than 75% of MPs across both houses, the military can effectively block any substantial changes proposed by the NLD. Moreover, the army controls three ministries: Defence, Border Affairs, and Home Affairs. In the last round of attempts by the NLD, only four amendments out of 114 were accepted by parliament, again demonstrating that the ruling party can effect only minor changes. Major proposals declined by the army and the USDP included changing the articles that prohibit anyone with foreign citizens in their family from becoming president, a gradual trimming of the number of parliamentary seats apportioned to the military from 25 percent to zero by 2030, and reducing the 75-percent threshold in parliament to 66 percent. Since then, the gulf between the army and the NLD government has only widened. That said, it should be noted that there have been times when the two sides have supported each other.

The international community recently witnessed how Aung San Suu Kyi defended the army at the International Court of Justice in a case put forward by Gambia for Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya minority. The government also cooperated with the army when they decided to shut down the internet across half of Rakhine State and some parts of Chin State in the name of national security for more than one year between June 2109 and August 2020. Earlier, the NLD government appointed military officials to key positions as soon as it gained the power. Many people in Myanmar assumed that the NLD government did so for the sake of national reconciliation, and few asked for an explanation. Yet in the last five years, the NLD government has also followed in the authoritarian footsteps of the army by demonstrating little tolerance for the media and civil society. The NLD’s silence on the army’s human rights violations in ethnic minority areas also sparked disappointment among ethnic parties and civil society.

Reconciliation and Inclusivity Is Key

The past haunted the NLD’s future during the election campaign, and its supporters are also prone to hate-mongering against their ethnic opponents. Reciprocally, supporters of the ethnic parties exhibited animosity towards the NLD especially when the UEC cancelled the elections in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States citing the ongoing conflicts there. This decision excluded approximately 1.4 million voters and sparked renewed grievances against the NLD, as many assumed that the UEC was seeking to help the NLD secure control over those territories.

In return, the ethnic parties no longer shy away from vigorous campaigning and have ceased accommodating the NLD in the way they did in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi criticized the ethno-centric political campaigning in ethnic states harshly and called for national solidarity by voting for the NLD against the ethnic parties. Her plea is quite ironic given the fact that she, as leader of the winning party, did not seem to care much about unity following her victory five years ago. Aiming to consolidate its authority, the NLD used the 2008 constitution to enforce its mandate to appoint the chief ministers of state and regional governments. This meant that Myanmar’s first-ever elected democratic government did not allow regional parliaments to select their own prime ministers, shocking nationalist circles and sparking widespread resentment among the ethnic parties that won majority votes in many states. Nevertheless, their hopes for winning in 2020 were dashed by the NLD’s victory in all ethnic provinces. It seems that recent waves of mass migration in the form of population exchanges between ethnic provinces and the central Burmese plains created a new demographic composition that poses an enormous electoral challenge to the ethnic parties.

Although the NLD won votes in ethnic constituencies, a lasting solution to unify society has yet to materialize. Myanmar is still waging a long civil war with several armed ethnic minority groups. The past four rounds of NLD-led peace talks have failed to deliver a resolution to the conflict, which is even exacerbating in many areas. Substantial progress will only be made if ethnic advocates for a genuine federal democracy are adequately heard and recognized in the upcoming term. Moreover, Myanmar must address structural and cultural violence against non-indigenous minorities, including people of Indian and Chinese ancestry. Without committing to a fair power-sharing agreement between the majority and minorities, the dream of a united future will remain little more than that. In the weeks and months to come, the victorious NLD must take the lead in bridging rather than deepening the nation’s divisions.