Corona has paralyzed Myanmar – but citizens still have to vote on Sunday. The mood is a bit like a dejá vu from the days of the military dictatorship. In 2008, shortly after the devastating cyclone Nargis, the then ruling generals let no aid into the country for the victims, but the population had to vote on a new constitution.
This has guaranteed military central power and a majority in parliament to this day. Today, however, the heroine of the then-democracy movement, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, is the de facto leader of the Asian country as a state councilor.
However, the 75-year-old is still not allowed to become president – her preferred position – due to a constitutional clause. The election is seen as a vote test for the popularity of the lady and her National League for Democracy (NLD), in which her now rather old, former companions remain.
The minorities feel betrayed
There is currently hardly any public life in the otherwise vibrant metropolis of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) of five million people, in the economic heart of the country there is a strict lockdown – until at least the end of November. There, as in some other parts of the country, the surge in Covid 19 infections means that people are only allowed out of the house wearing a mouth and nose mask: to go shopping or to the doctor.
Observers compare some of the controls in the neighborhoods with modern block guards based on the Chinese model. Many offices, businesses and factories have been closed. Then people don’t earn anything. In slums, people now catch rats because they run out of money to eat, Reuters reports.
What a contrast to the euphoria ten years ago, when after years of house arrest, the generals finally released democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi – albeit just a week after the then massively falsified elections.
The lady, as people reverently call her, had boycotted them against arrest with her NLD party. Vigilant, but fully excited, monks, businessmen, workers, young and old flocked to their first party headquarters meeting.
They didn’t know if they would all be arrested immediately, but they wanted to see their heroine in freedom, to listen to her. Suu Kyi promised them, as always with flowers in their hair, to fight for freedom of speech, to promote democracy, to unite the country with its 135 different ethnic groups.
In 2015 the lady won overwhelming
In the first general election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi ran after her release in 2015, her NLD took a huge victory. With 57 percent of the vote, she got 79 percent of the seats according to the ‘winner takes everything’ principle.
Even with such results, the military need not fear their power, as each elected member of the USDP closely related to it must contribute to the quarter of the seats the military has already acquired in the constitution as a blocking one. minority. This 25 percent of the MPs is determined by the generals.
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Difficult as this situation may be, Aung San Suu Kyi has discredited herself in the eyes of many ethnic minorities. All too quickly she came to terms with her opponents, the generals, and many human rights activists agree.
Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangon Photo: Ye Aung THU / AFP
The total of 135 recognized minorities make up 30 percent of the population. The lady, who belongs to the Burmese ethnic majority group, did little for them. Many feel betrayed by it – not just the remaining 600,000 Muslim Rohingya, most of whom have no civil rights and are not allowed to vote anyway. In total, 1.5 million of the 37 million eligible voters were disqualified, Human Rights Watch criticizes.
The lady did not deliver. Peace is a long way off, and constitutional reform is nowhere in sight. However, for the majority of the roughly 70 percent Buddhist Burmese, the lady is still the only one from whom they expect progress. Even if she hasn’t kept her election promises.
“Terrorists are spreading an iceberg of misinformation”
The Western world has turned away largely in disappointment because Aung San Suu Kyi, too, denied the military’s genocide against the Rohingyia. She claimed that “terrorists are spreading an iceberg of false news.”
She even personally defended her country at the International Court of Justice in The Hague last year. About one million Rohingyias who have fled to Bangladesh are still living in camps there in dire conditions with no prospect of return.
This does not concern the majority, many Burmese rallied behind her and cheered her on. Meanwhile, in Rakhine State, the region of Myanmar where the Rohingyia live virtually without rights, another age-old conflict has developed into a bloody civil war between the military, the Tatmadaw and the independence-seeking Arakan army. Buddhists against Buddhists.
There are no more newspapers even
The election campaign against popular state councilor Suu Kyi, daughter of freedom hero Aung San, is even tougher than usual in the Corona era, with public events where you can mobilize your supporters and make yourself known are banned due to rising corona numbers.
Even private newspapers are no longer printed, the head of the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Myanmar, Frederic Spohr, on the Tagesspiegel reports on the phone. He now maintains daily contact with his Bangkok employees via video conferencing. Due to the lockdown, Spohr is currently unable to enter or leave Myanmar.
Digital election campaign closed
So how do voters in Myanmar educate themselves? In the state media there is an election campaign in favor of the government. Aung San Suu Kyi is constantly present there – also as a corona aid manager. Elderly people are allowed to vote in advance as a risk group, they have already done that themselves.
Workers in protective suits collect ballots from corona-infected people Photo: Ye Aung THU / AFP
The military is re-establishing itself as a strong and protective force, building clinics for Covid 19 patients, the USDP nearby stands out with nationalist slogans and blames the lady.
A large part of this campaign is therefore going digital. Young people – five of the 37 million first-time voters – also like to be online in Myanmar, mostly on Facebook. Your votes have weight. But even on Facebook, Aung San Suu Kyi is in a comfortable position with her popular account of nearly three million subscribers.
Their many followers spread their messages faster and further than the followers of the less popular accounts of the People’s Party (PP) or People’s Spy Party (PPP). But, in total, only half of Myanmar’s population has mobile communications and only 34 percent has the internet. And in some secluded parts of the country, the Internet is virtually disabled.
In 2010, many students secretly campaigned to vote for the small opposition wearing voting T-shirts, despite the restrictions. According to the latest report from the Naumann Foundation, many today support the no-vote movement against the elections in protest.
The ethnic parties would like to become ‘kingmakers’
Still, most observers expect Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD to do pretty well on Sunday. The split ethnic parties in 2015 have come together in some regions to take over seats from the NLD. Because whoever has the majority in a constituency gets it in full – the “winner takes everything” principle applies.
Some observers believe that under certain circumstances they could become “kingmakers” if only a coalition government was possible. In the regions, the heads of government are appointed by the central government.
Frederic Spohr cannot imagine that they could approach the ethnic groups and, in regions where they are particularly strong, could without necessity appoint a regional minority head of government. “Of grace” won’t do that. But ethnic parties could make this a condition if coalition talks are held.
The analyst Khin Zaw Win, who himself was imprisoned from 1994 to 2005, warned early on: “It’s not just about the military and the opposition, but a complex and varied game involving a whole range of players, old and new. ”
The founder of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, which is active in civil society, is explicitly in favor of a federal structure. The opposition would have liked to run him in 2010, but the thin man with the low voice did not want to go into politics. Even today he is one of the critics of Aung San Suu Kyi and the reigning elders.
The International Crisis Group expects conflicts to erupt after the election: “Even if the election outcome itself is not problematic, it will be very controversial and deepen the divisions of the country,” their latest report said. It reads like an echo of US election analysis.