The 2020 Myanmar election: resetting the role of civil society organisations

Notwithstanding the second wave of COVID-19 infections, Myanmar is going ahead with its General Election on 8 November. This will be the second election in the post-military era, and it will mark a significant historical event in the country’s recent democratic transformation. While the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to win most of the 424 elected seats, ethnic parties in the states—the provinces of ethnic nationalities—may see better results than in 2015. Unlike 2015, there are some new political parties, which are less aligned with either the military-backed Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP) or the NLD.

Although the electoral outcome is unpredictable, the result is not likely to make a significant difference to current democratisation challenges, which require strengthening civil society to improve institutional and governance systems. The current restricted environment for civil society organisations, especially those advocating for the expansion of human rights and accountability, is almost certain to continue in post-2020 Myanmar. There is a lot of stake for the democratisation of Myanmar and its fragile reform for a more inclusive society.

There are three possible electoral outcomes, and each will shape Myanmar’s legislative agenda differently. Most importantly, the outcome will decide who will be the next President and who will control the administration until February 2026.

In the first possible outcome, the incumbent NLD administration will return with a reduced majority, riding on the national popularity of its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and its dominant online presence to overcome COVID-related campaign restrictions.

The second possible outcome would see the military-backed USDP win by gaining at least 25% of elected seats and combining this with the 220 military-reserved seats to control the Union legislature.

In the third possible outcome, the minority nationalities will hold the balance of power in the national legislatures to assert influence over the election of the future President. However, with the recent cancellation of the elections in constituencies from mostly nationality-dominated areas, this outcome seems unlikely.

The unique nature of Myanmar’s political system under the 2008 Constitution means the Parliamentary election results have limited influence on future political constellations. Apart from their legislative functions, members of parliament have limited scrutiny on the executive government. While the Parliament will elect the President and the Vice Presidents and confirm the President-nominated judicial and ministerial positions, Myanmar’s Parliament operates as a check and balance to the executive. Partly due to its restricted powers within the scope of the 2008 Constitution, but mostly due to party discipline of restraint in making critical comments against their leaders, the current, NLD-dominated Parliament has been criticised for not fulfilling its potential to be a public forum to check the NLD-led government’s decisions, especially in protecting the broader rights of the people and ensuring democratic spaces.

In addition to the NLD’s inability to progress key national reform agenda such as peace and constitutional reforms, the erosion of freedom of expression and the failure of local administration changes generated a range of tensions and fragmentation within the civil society over the last five years. In addition, both print media and social media in Myanmar have come under increasing scrutiny that has contributed to self-censorship and silences. Unlike in 2015, there is little expectation that the outcome of this election will offer significant structural changes to address these concerns.

There has been a lot of expectation that civil society organisations (CSOs) could play a positive role in monitoring Myanmar’s elections to ensure the effectiveness and integrity of the democratic process in Myanmar. The local CSOs are also expected to play a significant role in the forthcoming election by conducting observation and public education. There was a highly-celebrated, active and widespread engagement of both local and international CSOs supporting the 2015 election. However, recent political developments indicate their engagement in the 2020 election is likely to be quite restricted. Moreover, space for the CSOs to contribute to political and policy reforms after the election is unlikely to be significantly reduced.

The recent example of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) and the controversial decisions of the Union Election Commission (UEC) demonstrate the current predicament faced by CSOs that are focused on policy or political reforms. PACE is a prominent local group almost exclusively focused on electoral issues. It provided the largest numbers of electoral observers in the 2015 General Election, and both by-elections in 2017 and 2018. Despite its prominent previous involvements in ensuring the integrity of the electoral process, in July 2020, the UEC decided not to give accreditation to PACE for the 2020 Election, citing the lack of association registration and foreign funding. It is worth noting that neither conditions are illegal under the current Association Law. The UEC reversed its decision in a few weeks later, caving to intense public pressure, to allow PACE as one of the local organisations accredited as election observers.

The strange case of the PACE Accreditation echoes the difficulties faced by Myanmar’s CSOs in their endeavours to promote public policies under the NLD-led administration. A general view on this restricted political landscape is that the current government is unnecessarily bureaucratic and only follows the letter of the law in public policy processes. A more pessimistic view, as expressed privately among some local leaders, suggests two key elements of the NLD’s failure of leadership.

The first element entails the government’s desire to reign in the myriad of CSOs, especially those attracting lucrative international funding. It is probably understandable for a legitimate government to establish a justifiable framework to strengthen accountability, sustainability and probity within the sector. The 2014 Association Law stipulates only a voluntary registration and there is no overarching framework concerning CSOs to guide such a systematic CSO reform. Without a comprehensive approach to strengthening the CSO sector, the NLD-led or NLD-appointed authorities have used a seemingly overzealous legalistic style to deter broader democratic reforms.

The second element of this failure relates to the NLD’s perspective on CSOs’ policy criticisms as the political opposition to the government. With an almost dogmatic conviction on the infallibility of its leader, many in the NLD are intolerant to any critical comments. Despite many CSO leaders being former allies in the struggle against the military rule, there is little or no space for policy dialogues or engagement with them. In contrast to the last quasi-military government, which openly accommodated their inputs in policy workshops and reform dialogues, the CSOs have become frustrated with the NLD members with the lack of engagement in policy discussions. This antagonism has led to some student unionists agitating for an election boycott in 2020, partly as an objection to the popularly elected government.

There is no sign of an improved relationship between the broader CSO community and the NLD-led administration in the near future. More importantly, it is unlikely that a returned NLD administration will change its approach to the CSOs. Taking a cue from the current CSO-NLD relationship, it is also unlikely that, in the event of the second possible election outcome, a USDP-Military administration would consider the CSOs as friends, especially concerning human rights-related issues.

In the third possible outcome, in which ethnic nationalities hold the balance of power in the legislature, heated contestations between the military, administrative and legislative institutions could take place. Such an unstable environment might result in politicisation among CSOs, rather than strengthening the sector.

The 2020 General Election should be a critical time to consolidate democratisation, especially in relation to resetting the relationship between CSOs and the political authorities. However, their recent experience in advocacy for political and policy reform under the NLD government and the potential election outcomes indicates such collaboration is not likely to occur or even guarantee the current level of freedom enjoyed by the service-oriented CSOs. There is a need to find another opportunity in the post-2020 elections to re-establish democratic alliance between political forces and CSOs.

This piece is part of the authors’ larger research project ‘Supporting the Rules-Based Order in Southeast Asia – Phase 2 (SEARBO2)’.

The authors gratefully acknowledge Ruji Auethavornpipat and Lia Kent for their comments.

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