Aung San Suu Kyi expected to keep power in Myanmar election

‘Mother Suu’ remains popular despite coronavirus, conflict in Rakhine state and genocide charges

Voters across Myanmar have gone to the polls for an election that is expected to return to power the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains hugely popular at home despite allegations of a genocide that have destroyed her reputation abroad.

Queues of people waited in line, in some cases for hours, to cast their ballots on Sunday in the country’s second general election since the end of full military rule. Most were wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus. The country has confirmed more than 60,000 infections, the majority of which were reported since mid-August.

Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to hold on to power, even as the country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, a spiralling conflict in Rakhine state and faces genocide charges at the UN’s top court.

Five years since her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory, Aung San Suu Kyi retains strong support among the Bamar majority, who revere her as a protector of democracy. While the brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims appalled many abroad, there is little sympathy for their plight domestically, and it has not been a factor in election campaigns.

In a Facebook video posted on Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi urged people to go out and cast their ballot. “Every single voter is writing their own history, this election’s history and our country’s history,” she said.

About 38 million people were eligible to go to the polls, including 5 million first-time voters.

“I’m not at all afraid of being infected with Covid-19,” Khine Zar Chi, 27, told Agence France-Presse, as she voted for the first time in downtown Yangon. “I don’t care if I die for Mother Suu.”

Others, however, accuse Aung San Suu Kyi of failing to deliver on the democratic reforms promised in 2015, or the pledge to bring peace and reconciliation.

Voting was cancelled in several areas dominated by ethnic minorities, ostensibly due to security concerns over fighting between the army and armed groups that are calling for greater autonomy. It’s feared the decision, which has left an estimated 1.5 million people disenfranchised, will entrench resentment, and fuel conflict.

Analysts point out that voting has been stopped even in areas where fighting is limited.

Rohingya Muslims, who have long been denied citizenship, are still without voting rights. Most are stuck in squalid camps in Bangladesh, where they fled an army crackdown in 2017. Hundreds of thousands remain confined to camps and villages inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where Human Rights Watch has reported abuses that it says amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

On Friday, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, raised concern over the “legal limbo” facing Rohingya in Myanmar, and their inability to vote. “It is important that everyone have a voice and be able to participate in these elections in a very … inclusive way,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

The government-appointed election commission has been criticised not only over voter exclusion, but also for a lack of transparency, discrimination against Muslim candidates and logistical problems.

Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for an early vote in Naypyitaw before the election
Aung San Suu Kyi arrives for an early vote in Naypyitaw before the election. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

Last week, in a rare interview, the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, accused the civilian government of “unacceptable mistakes” in the run-up to the election and described the army as the “guardian” of the nation. He has since said he will accept the results of the vote.

A quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, which has ruled in an uneasy alliance with the NLD over the past five years. It remains extremely powerful and has blocked proposals to change the constitution and therefore reduce its influence.

About 90 parties are competing with the NLD, though campaigning was hampered in some areas due to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s believed this will mostly disadvantage smaller, ethnic-based parties, which lack access to state media.

It was feared the pandemic could also deter people from going to polling stations, but on Sunday morning analysts reported a strong turnout.

Lines of people have waited for two hours to vote in downtown Yangon, said Khin Zaw Win, the director of Tampadipa Institute in Yangon. “The Myanmar electorate doesn’t need to be prodded,” he said, adding that there has, historically, long been a recognition of the importance of elections. “Add to that the half-century of democracy denial under the military, and people know voting is the best chance they have,” he said.

But he added that politicians have persistently let the public down. “There have been waves of reforms but not enough, and not in critical sectors like land tenure, citizenship and religious freedoms. And corruption is always there, hanging like a pall.”


Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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