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Commentary: Myanmar’s 2020 vote endorses NLD but does not resolve issues

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12 Nov Commentary: Myanmar’s 2020 vote endorses NLD but does not resolve issues

By Simon Tay and Sarah Loh
For The Business Times

MYANMAR’S election results have yet to be officially released, but are unlikely to surprise. The National League of Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi have claimed victory, and most observers believe they have won decisively. If the NLD can form the next government to rule on its own, this would mark their second landslide victory in the country’s nascent return to democracy.

In contrast, neither the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party nor the 90-odd parties running for seats did well. After more than 50 years of military rule, the NLD seems the clear and continuing choice for many in Myanmar.

Yet while the victory is important, key questions lie ahead. What happens next will be critical for democracy, and for economic growth and business opportunities.

Questioning the vote

Some question the legitimacy of the elections. Voting was cancelled in parts of the Shan state, and impacted some 73 per cent of eligible voters in the troubled Rakhine state. Irregularities were reported too – such as fake stamps used for voting and ballot boxes with broken seals. Moreover, elections proceeded despite a worsening coronavirus outbreak and COVID-19 containment rules constrained some campaigning.

Such deficiencies were not only pointed out by Western commentators. The military too, without irony, suggested the elections fell short of being “free and fair”. Yet most will accept the current results, saying that democratic processes will need more time to consolidate.

Moreover, the results ring clear – they do not just reject military-backed parties but also reiterate Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, despite Western criticisms. That strong support reportedly includes younger voters – some five million first-timers in these elections.

Still, the clear electoral support does not resolve some of the most vital issues facing the new government.

Governing a divided system and diverse society

First, the NLD’s ability to govern must be proven. Its transition from heroic opposition to running government was difficult in the first term. This was not only because of limited capacity and experience. Government powers are divided under the Constitution, with the powerful Tatmadaw guaranteed 25 per cent of all Parliamentary seats, and control of key ministries for defence, border and home affairs.

Top NLD priorities remain reliant on the military’s support, including amending the Constitution and securing peace with ethnic minorities. Going into a second term, the NLD government must find a modus vivendi and ways to cooperate with the military or otherwise make little progress.

The new government must also deal with Myanmar’s diversity, with many ethnic minorities who perceive the NLD as being dominated by the majority Bamar people. Many are armed and have de facto control over sections of the country, fighting intermittent wars for decades. In these last five years, ethnic minorities have become increasingly disillusioned with the NLD, and peace efforts have shown little progress.

This led to a more fragmented vote in the 2020 elections, with some new ethnic-based parties expected to grow at state-level. Yet, the Constitution allows the government to appoint chief ministers for each of the states, and this can lead to uneasy relations.

Addressing the economy and crises

Economic growth is another priority. After the 2015 elections, the NLD government gave business issues scant attention and momentum was lost. It will now be critical to recover from the pandemic and gear up for stronger and longer-term growth.

There is some reason for optimism. Over the past two years, the NLD government took efforts to reform, reduce red tape and introduce clearer rules. An overall Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan is in place, with principles aligned to international standards and a project bank highlighting key infrastructure projects to potential investors. There is optimism about Myanmar’s consumer market and fast-moving digital economy.

On the election trail, the NLD leadership gave emphasis to growth and jobs. But delivering on those promises will depend on attracting international investors. This leads to a third priority: the government must deal with two crises quickly and effectively.

The first is the pandemic. Myanmar suffers from an inadequate healthcare system, and will have to seek assistance from others for its COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan and medium-term Economic Recovery and Reform Plan.

The second and continuing crisis is in the Rakhine state. The situation is complex, and cannot be easily resolved especially with strong sentiments within Myanmar where many do not recognise the Rohingya. This creates tension with the international community, and especially the West, whose criticisms have escalated since 2017.

Finding better ways to manage the issue will be essential. Many investors are wary of potential escalation leading to sanctions and reputational risk. The NLD must change perceptions in order to attract investment from the West. Otherwise, Myanmar can depend only on partners in Asia and Asean, especially China and Japan. While partnering other Asians is nothing bad in itself, the risk is that over-dependence on China will result – a sensitive issue for many.

It was always going to be a challenge for Myanmar to emerge as a democracy and integrate into the global economy. The exuberance of the 2015 elections and the NLD’s first victory masked that truth. The 2020 vote again endorses the NLD but, perhaps for the better, there is a greater reality of what needs to be done next.

  • Simon Tay is chairman, and Sarah Loh is policy researcher, at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Assoc Prof Tay is also the author of the newly released book, Shadows Across the Golden Land: Myanmar’s Opening, Foreign Influence and Investment (World Scientific Press).

Source: The Business Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission.