A red-letter day in Myanmar

The Southeast Asian dictatorship’s gradual opening to the world means that its long-awaited elections have come under increased scrutiny. Words by Eleanor Loudon

Eleanor Loudon is a writer, researcher and analyst based in Myanmar.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a Southeast Asian nation; its capital is Naypyitaw. Notable for its vast ethnic diversity, the country was, until 2010, governened by a military junta. The end of that regime has opened Myanmar to the world, bringing complex new challenges as it faces the democratic process.

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Capital: Naypyitaw
Area: 676,578 km(261,227 sq mi)
Population: 51,486,253
Time zone: GMT +6:30

Myanmar_A USDP campaign truck passes through Yangon.

In November 2010, Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years. The previous elections, in 1990, had resulted in victory for a newly formed opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which brought together a mix of old elites, disgruntled generals and impassioned activists. The NLD’s win seemed to come as something of a surprise to the military regime, which responded by putting most NLD politicians in prison or under house arrest, and holding on to power.

The 2010 elections were also a surprise to many. Firstly, because they were held at all, and secondly, because they took place with a veneer of semi-normality, even if the NLD refused to participate because its 1990 results had not yet been recognised, as well as because of restrictive candidate and party-registration regulations. The decision to abstain was widely believed to have come straight from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD’s Nobel Prize-winning leader, then under house arrest and so unable to run herself. The decision caused a split within the party, and the establishment of a splinter group, the National Democratic Front. Meanwhile, many generals stepped down from the military, symbolically taking off their uniforms, and stood as candidates for the military party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

In 2010, in a departure from its usual repressive behaviour, the military regime – perhaps confident that it had sufficiently stacked the odds in its favour – allowed a measure of free speech and discussion to take place around the election. Colleagues, taxi drivers and friendly people in teashops would look at me with sly smiles and ask who I was going to vote for. Sometimes, if it looked like they felt comfortable talking about such delicate matters, I would ask them back. At which point many of them would sigh and say they didn’t think they’d vote as there wasn’t anyone to vote for – which made the NLD’s decision not to run seem unfortunate, to say the least. The USDP won by a landslide.

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Myanmar _2Left, party supporters construct a National League for Democracy (NLD) float in Mandalay ahead of November’s elections. Right, a man with the Myanmar flag painted on his face supports his country in the 2013 Southeast Asian Sea Games, which Myanmar hosted.

At the time of writing, Myanmar is in the long lead-up to its next election, scheduled for November 8, which has the dubious honour of being the first held under “democratic” conditions since 1960. It is quite a different election from 2010’s. The media are reporting on the election, albeit not very impartially. Yangon, the former capital, is awash with the NLD’s peacock and star flag, affixed to taxis, trishaws and people’s faces. Daw Suu herself is actively campaigning across the entire country. And the USDP is trying to demonstrate its continuing viability as a party of government, including, on October 15, squeezing out a “nationwide” ceasefire agreement with eight of the approximately 17 armed groups in conflict with the central state.

Despite the excitement of this attempt at testing, and improving upon, Myanmar’s “disciplined multiparty democracy” (as the political system is described in the 2008 constitution), there is a bitter feeling around the election build-up. Many people have the underlying suspicion that, just as in the past, they are still being tricked by the military, and that this election won’t be fair nor will its results be honoured.

A main motif of this untrustworthy, unreformed government is dedication to the three “national causes”, the first three basic principles of the 2008 constitution: non-disintegration of the country’s unity; non-disintegration of national solidarity; and the perpetuation of sovereignty. These three fragments are painted in white letters on signboards outside and inside every government building, every school, every municipal office, every army camp. The colour of the background depends on the office – red for the army, green for education, light blue for social welfare.

These national causes, the army’s fundamental principles, were coined as part of its justification for the horrifically violent suppression of the 1988 uprising – and were used when it decided not to cede power to the NLD in 1990 – but the thinking behind them goes back to the civil wars that broke out after independence. They allow the army to perceive itself as the country’s steward at the expense of the “people’s desire”. They are also the principles on which the army will not give way in the current ceasefire negotiations, enabling it to resist any whisper of autonomy or self-rule for ethnic areas. Yet because the signboards are only in Burmese, their centrality to public and political life in Myanmar is missed by most foreigners.

The phone tax, Aung Thaung and the floods are other examples of how strong is the population’s distrust, as well as how easy it is to miss it. In May, the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology announced a five-percent tax on phone-credit top-ups. It seemed like a sensible idea in a country with low tax revenue and faulty administrative systems – a simple way to get the new class of mobile-phone users, who the 2014 census revealed are about 33 percent of the population, to contribute. The day after the announcement of the tax I had breakfast with an older couple, also regulars at a favourite teashop. He is a rice trader and speaks good English; her father was an air force pilot (and therefore from the most educated of the armed forces) and spent time at Sandhurst. They were outraged. He asked us rhetorically whether the UK government would ever tax phone credit, and I said they did tax phone use, and he replied – incredulously – but not phone credit, surely! We listened to a radio talk show in a taxi on the way back from dinner the same night, and a guest explained that it was understandable that people were angry, given that the government’s budget was not transparent, and that there was no fiscal responsibility. Not to mention that the military has beggared a country rich in natural resources, but still strikingly underdeveloped. Eight days later the parliament ruled that it was too soon to introduce the telephone tax, and it was postponed beyond the election. People don’t want to pay their money to a thieving government. 

Then there was the case of Aung Thaung, a particularly unpleasant USDP MP who was put on the US sanctions list in 2014, then had a cerebral haemorrhage in July and was flown to Singapore for hospital treatment. There was a lot of bittersweet mocking on Facebook at the fact that he would never seek treatment in a Burmese hospital, where surgeons are said to answer their mobiles in the middle of surgery, and doctors kill patients by misdiagnosing dengue fever as a stroke. My Burmese teacher told me that the government covered the entire cost of Aung Thaung’s medical bills – around £450,000 – and when the treatment didn’t work, he was given a state funeral. My teacher, a retired professor in her eighties given to grandstanding against the regime, told me, “Cucumbers and other vegetables have doubled in price. How can we pay taxes that go towards subsidising the wealthy, while the poor can no longer afford a bunch of cucumbers?”

Then came the terrible floods that hit Myanmar in August. There was a huge popular response and incredible fundraising efforts for flood victims. Students were all over the streets of Yangon collecting money (apparently they had been given time off by the university rector). I took a taxi whose driver who was planning to donate his entire day’s earnings to flood relief.

A friend who co-ordinates car parking outside our teashop organised a donation on behalf of his home ward, in the slums of Hlaing Thaya Township; a wealthier friend sent a whole truck full of rice and water and clothes. The outpouring of support was impressive. And also a bit trendy – a nice excuse to cut class and wear a T-shirt with the slogan “Pray for Myanmar” – and take selfies of yourself doing so. But it was moving, too: after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, people mobilised a massive relief effort to help others whom the government was refusing to aid, but they did so quietly and under threat of imprisonment. Of course, people are now organising because they don’t trust the government to do so.

— Myanmar _3Left, a man lifts up a friend so he can check the voter list. Middle and right, there isn’t much in the way of interesting graphics in this campaign; candidates mostly follow the standard format of head shot, party affiliation and list of their degrees. 

I don’t think many foreigners living in Myanmar really understand the depths of this distrust. This is a problem because some of them make decisions about international economic and aid investment in Myanmar that neglect to take into consideration the country’s political dynamics. In June I went to a talk, in English, on the elections, convened by a group of young foreign-development consultants starting their careers in Myanmar. In a stiflingly hot gallery space packed with other interested expats, a brilliant Myanmar writer, Ma Thida, spoke, not very charismatically, about the historical reasons for the lack of trust in the elections. These reasons include the fiddling of early votes in the 2010 election, which miraculously swung seats that looked that they might go against the ruling party; the replacement of the leadership of the Union Election Commission (UEC) – eminent personalities in the 1990 election – by retired generals; and restrictions on the press – journalists still have to obtain approval to report on the elections and are not allowed to travel freely. Ma Thida’s speech was followed by two by Americans working for NGOs that work with the UEC, who defended the government’s efforts to make sure that this election is well run – essentially speaking against Ma Thida, but not answering her concerns. 

The Q&A session afterwards was mostly about the work of the NGOs in election monitoring. There were few questions for Ma Thida, as if the points she had raised were not relevant. This seemed particularly unfortunate given that most of the internationals in the room may not get many chances to ask articulate, English-speaking Burmese people about their thoughts and feelings on the election. It is unusual to have deep political conversations in English with Burmese, beyond a general thumbs-up for Daw Suu and thumbs-down for the government, if you’re lucky. And it is unusual for internationals working in Myanmar to speak Burmese well enough to initiate those conversations in the local language. 

But people are genuinely concerned that the government will fix the election. For example, they don’t trust the process for establishing who is eligible to vote. Throughout June and July, voter lists were displayed for two-week periods at ward offices, where people could check them and submit changes. A final display period took place during the last two weeks of September. It is positive that the government is posting voter lists with – one hopes – time to correct them (by the beginning of September there had already been 3 million requests for changes). As voter lists were based on township records, inaccuracies were inevitable. There have been absurd and sad irregularities; for example, a news reporter killed by the army in Mon state in 2014 was on the lists, but not his wife, who has been campaigning for a transparent investigation into his murder. People have picked up on these irregularities and used them as proof of the government’s obstructionism; the NLD continues to stir up discontent about this, including submitting a letter to the Union Election Commission about irregularities of up to 80 percent in some wards. (A photo being shared on Facebook shows one ward office where the lists were displayed so high – just below the roof – that people had to hold each other up to check them.) 

NGO electoral specialists roll their eyes at this stuff – but it matters. It’s quite possible that the election will be largely fair, but that the NLD won’t win, in large part due to its mishandling of ethnic politics. Daw Suu is already talking about how she will lead the country despite not being able to become president (she is barred by the constitution). But what if the NLD doesn’t win, and people reject the result because they expected the NLD to win, and they think only a faulty election process could have produced a loss? That might be a moot question by the time this article is published. But if it’s not, the implications in terms of civil unrest – and an army response – could be grave.

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There are reasons other than the military for bitterness and mistrust around the elections. Daw Suu’s NLD allowed a number of big-name non-members to put their names forward for selection as NLD candidates, including 17 members of the activist group 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, as well as Dr Nyo Nyo Thin, a fantastically outspoken women who is currently an independent MP for the Yangon regional parliament. The NLD then chose almost none of them – and only one of the 88 Generation members. The choice of candidates was controlled by Daw Suu, head of the selection committee. Our teashop owner (who knows these things) explained it as a question of loyalty: these individuals may not obey the party, may not be loyal. Which begs the question: since the election has been looming for a few years now, why was the choice of candidates so last-minute and such a shock? And why humiliate them publicly like this, after having encouraged them to apply for selection? And why create divisions inside the opposition and alienate the next generation of activists? This last consequence seems especially ill-advised, when the new generation of student leaders – many of whom have already been cut off from the NLD – are now in prison, and the party lacks a second line of leadership. Daw Suu’s authoritarian tendencies – hinted at in her rejection of the 2010 election – only seem to become more pronounced and self-defeating. 




This July I travelled to Loikaw, the capital of Kayah, a small, hilly state that borders Thailand. Kayah supplies the majority of Myanmar’s electricity, yet has the smallest population of any of its administrative divisions. The chairperson for the NLD in Kayah served us fizzy orange drinks and dry biscuits in her reception room, on the first floor of her grand wooden house, just off one of Loikaw’s main roads. The daughter-in-law of one of the last Kayah sawbwas (princes) and a former doctor, she was educated in a “sister kyaung”, a convent school, and spoke in the beautifully clipped English of the pre-military regime’s elite.

The chairperson felt underappreciated for her efforts in supporting the NLD and Daw Suu: even when the leader came to Loikaw, the chairperson said, she never visited her office. She gestured at her spacious parking-lot courtyard: “I cut down all my trees and cemented over my beautiful garden to provide space for the signature campaign” – against the provisions in the constitution that reserve 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military – “and she doesn’t recognise the sacrifice I made.”

Her husband, the son of the sawbwa, was a wizened former high-school English teacher, shy from old age, from being a retiring husband, or from having forgotten much of his English. We spoke in Burmese about the education system; he shook his head and said it was a kyun pyinnyayee siniq, a system only designed to produce slaves. Burmese nationalists used the same words to describe the British education system during the colonial period – but now many educated people look back longingly at that time.

The ruling USDP has its own divisions to contend with. In August, President Thein Sein worked with the military to try to oust his main presidential rival, Thura Shwe Mann. He was removed from his position as USDP party chairman and kept under what looked suspiciously like house arrest for a day. It seemed as if he would be removed from his post as speaker of the lower house of parliament and from his parliamentary seat, but perhaps as a result of the shock and ridicule that accompanied this move, the military seems to have realised it may not have looked good just before the election. (Shwe Mann had alienated the military with his populist behaviour in parliament, and by rejecting two-thirds of the retired officers it had nominated as party candidates; it is very military-style behaviour to purge those who have become too strong.) But all is not well between the president and the military either: the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has found convenient ways to excuse himself from the president’s ceasefire talks – including a trip to Israel that just happened to be extended – and the military has blithely continued its campaigns against a number of armed groups throughout the president’s entire peace process – part of the reason why only eight groups signed the October ceasefire agreement. 

Another source of bitterness, but seemingly only for those it directly affects, is that neither the NLD nor the USDP is fielding a single Muslim candidate. The UEC rejected 89 candidates, of which perhaps as many as 50 percent were Muslims, and almost every Muslim party that attempted to register candidates had most of them rejected. The UEC has not given an explanation for its process, but it didn’t reject a single USDP candidate. Muslims make up between four and 10 percent of the population, but exact figures are too sensitive to be released: it is feared that if they are too high, extremist Buddhists will resort to even harsher methods to reduce the numbers.

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Myanmar _4Left, a cartoon explaining the Myanmar elections to voters, and detailing how to check the voter list. Right, the Gotek viaduct.

On the same July trip, we drove through the Gotek Ravine. We arrived at dusk, in a monsoonal drizzle, at the end of a long day spent travelling through the lush landscape of Shan state, eating pineapple at the roadside and meeting with Shan youth groups and literature and culture associations. The road, the main trunk road from the centre of Myanmar to China, is two-lane, which makes for a rather terrifying experience as it twists and turns precipitously down, each stretch before the next turn getting a little shorter than the last.

It is filled with lorries so big they can barely make the turns. 

Few of the lorries had their lights on, nor did most of the motorbikes. Many lorries were stopped along the road, and it was unclear whether this was for a rest, because they had broken down or perhaps because they had been overcome by fear of heights. This made most of the route single-track. One lorry had stopped while climbing a sharp turn, so that we were forced to creep perilously along the edge to pass. When we were back on the ascent, we stopped to peer through the darkening mist at the Gotek viaduct, built during the colonial era, spanning the ravine in the distance. My Myanmar colleague sniffed. The government could never do that kind of engineering project now, she said. Only possible during the colonial period. §