Plans for an image makeover, part of which are forthcoming elections, may not go the junta’s way, writes Sudha Ramachandran
Two years ago on February 1, the Myanmar military staged a coup to overthrow the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
Although the junta was able to successfully stamp out the mass street protests that rocked urban Myanmar in the early months of the coup,it is now confronted by a powerful armed resistance across the country, including in Bamar-dominated regions that were traditionally bastions of military support, which is led by the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) and an array of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO).
Myanmar is now in the grip of a civil war. Its economy and social fabric are in tatters. With the junta prioritising political survival and preoccupied with pursuing its opponents, law and order have broken down completely. The military is reported to be losing control.
Citing a leaked document of proceedings of a top-level ‘counter terrorism’ meeting held in December last year, The Irrawaddy reported on January 18 this year that the resistance to the junta is ‘growing beyond control’.Yangon’s security minister told participants at the meeting, who included the Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant-General Soe Htut and over 50 senior regime officials, that the city witnessed over 900 bomb attacks despite heightened security.Participants at the meeting also drew attention to the escalation in PDF attacks on the military,from hit-and-run assaults to artillery attacks using makeshift 107mm rocket launchers.
Two years on from the coup, the Myanmar military’s efforts to stamp out the resistance are not going well for the generals.
These two years of emergency rule are due to expire on January 31. The junta is expected to follow in the footsteps of previous military regimes to give itself an image makeover. Analysts say that the State Administration Council (SAC), as the current administrative body is known, is likely to be reshuffled to create a ‘transition council’.It will be given a new name, even as steps are taken to ensure that the generals remain in power.
A makeover via the ballot box is also on the cards. During a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence from colonial rule, junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing announced plans to hold elections and called for support for the junta’s ‘genuine, discipline-flourishing multiparty democratic system’. It had previously announced August 2023 as the deadline for elections.
The elections, will, of course, be stage-managed by the military to ensure the Tatmadaw’s control over power.
The junta has been doing the groundwork to ensure that the election will go in its favour. The current Election Commission is headed by the same person who manipulated the 2010 parliamentary election that resulted in the victory of the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).Localgovernment officials are now being replaced by USDP members to ensure victory again.
Junta officials have reached out to parties representing ethnic minorities to get them on board for the election. To attract ethnic minorities, Min Aung Hlaing has offered to hold elections under a proportional representation (PR) system,ostensibly so that smaller parties can win seats in their areas.
However, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Elections in 2015 and 2020, which were held under the winner-takes-all system, benefited the NLD, which ended up with far more seats than its proportion of votes would have brought it under the PR system.
The NLD has said it will not recognise or participate in a junta-organised election. However, NLD ‘renegades’ are reportedly in touch with junta officials.
Myanmar’s generals are hoping that electionswill provide them with a veneer of respectability. They will not. The generals are reviled across the country.
Neither will the elections bring Myanmar closer to stabilityand normalcy. Holding elections in a country that is aflame with violent conflict will not be easy, especially since vast areas of Myanmar are not under the regime’s stable control.
The military regime is expected to hold the election in phases. Voting in regime-controlled areas will see voters being frog-marched to voting booths. In rebel-held and contested areas, where the resistance will call for a boycott of the poll, voters will be caught in the crossfire.The Kachin Independence Organisation, which is part of the anti-junta resistance, has warned that any party which participates in the election is ‘standing with the enemy’.Resistance groups are already targeting junta election offices in Yangon, Magwe and Sagaing regions.
Even regime officials are doubtful over whether the election can indeed be held. ‘None of the officials present at the meeting [that The Irrawaddy reported on] was confident the regime will be able to successfully hold the election planned in August.’Analysts are predicting that the poll could be the most violent in Myanmar’s history.
Besides the grave political and security situation in the country, weather conditions will impact the conduct of elections and will need to be factored in. July-August is the peak monsoon period and holding elections then will be challenging.
May is said to be the most convenient weatherwise. Butin terms of election logistics –preparing voters lists, vetting candidates, setting up booths, etc –Myanmar is far from ready.
Despite their robust efforts to manipulate elections in their favour, Myanmar’s generals have not always succeeded. Elections in 1990, 2015 and 2020 resulted in landslide victories for the NLD. The only time military proxies won was in 2010. The NLD did not contest that election.
Myanmar’s generals will be praying that the NLD doesn’t throw its hat in the ring.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.email@example.com