Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to retain power, even as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, a spiraling conflict in Rakhine State and faces genocide charges before the highest court of the UN.
Five years after 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 has dismayed many abroad, there is little sympathy for their plight at home, and it has not been a factor in election campaigns.
In a Facebook video posted Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi urged people to come out and vote. “Each voter writes their own story, the history of this election and the history of our country,” she said.
About 38 million people were eligible to go to the polls, including 5 million for the first time.
“I am 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 commitment bring peace and reconciliation.
The vote was canceled in several regions dominated by ethnic minorities, apparently due to security concerns linked to the fighting between the army and armed groups who are demanding greater autonomy. There are fears the move, which left an estimated 1.5 million people stripped of their voting rights, may reinforce resentment and fuel the conflict.
Analysts point out that voting has been halted even in areas where fighting is limited.
Rohingya Muslims, long denied citizenship, still do not have the right to vote. Most are stuck in squalid camps in Bangladesh, where they fled army crackdown in 2017. Hundreds of thousands remain confined in camps and villages inside Myanmar’s Rakhine State , where Human Rights Watch reported on abuses that it believes constitute the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.
On Friday, UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed concern over the “legal limbo” facing the Rohingya in Myanmar and their inability to vote. “It is important that everyone has a voice and can participate in these elections in a very… inclusive way,” said UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric.
The government-appointed electoral commission has been criticized not only for excluding voters, but also for its lack of transparency, discrimination against Muslim candidates and logistical problems.
Last week, in a rare interview, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing accused the civilian government of “unacceptable mistakes” in the run-up to elections and called the military 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, who have ruled in a difficult alliance with the NLD for the past five years. He remains extremely powerful and has blocked proposals to change the constitution and therefore reduce his influence.
About 90 parties are competing with the NLD, although the campaign has been hampered in some areas due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is believed that this will especially disadvantage small ethnic parties, which do not have access to state media.
There were concerns that the pandemic would also deter people from going to polling stations, but on Sunday morning analysts reported high turnout.
Queues of people waited two hours to vote in downtown Yangon, said Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon. “Myanmar’s electorate does not need to be pushed,” he said, adding that historically, the importance of elections has long been recognized. “Add to that the half-century of denial of democracy under the military, and people know that voting is the best chance they have,” he said.
But he added that politicians have consistently let the public down. “There have been waves of reforms, but not enough, and not in critical areas like land tenure, citizenship and religious freedoms. And the corruption is still there, hanging like a sheet.