Democracy Prevailed in US Election. Myanmar's Vote Was More Complicated.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party claimed victory in a poll that critics say reflects the poor state of justice, peace and human rights in the country.
November 9, 2020, 12:59pm
Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party wave flags in front of the party's office in Mandalay on Nov. 8, 2020, as ballots for the parliamentary elections are being counted after the polls closed. Photo: Ye Naing Ye / AFP

It was a strong showing for democratic values as Americans cast ballots in record numbers on Nov. 3, helping Democratic candidate Joe Biden triumph over U.S. President Donald Trump in a drawn-out but orderly tally despite baseless claims from the incumbent about voter fraud.

Two days after the results were announced and on the other side of the world, Myanmar also held a historic vote, only the second since the end of military-backed rule in the Southeast Asian country. But while leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party claimed victory on Tuesday in a repeat landslide from 2015, experts say it was no victory for democracy.


"Regardless of the election's outcome, Myanmar will remain an illiberal democracy," political scientist Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Australia's Griffith University, told VICE News. "A system of government in which elections take place but citizens lack fundamental political rights and civil liberties."


Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi celebrate. Photo: YE AUNG THU / AFP

Myanmar is still emerging from decades of military rule. Defenders of Suu Kyi urge patience, saying that establishing full freedoms on par with other countries will simply take time. They also point to improvements in daily life compared to the dark days under the junta. But activists and opponents say many aspects have gotten worse since Suu Kyi's win in 2015, and that those problems are reflected in the recent election. 

Because of ongoing armed conflict in the country's borderlands, persecution of religious minorities, and the expulsion of 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017, nearly two million people were not able to vote. That has led to widespread condemnation abroad, where Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human rights icon is in tatters.

But critics say her party's crushing election victory at home is a dispiriting sign of acceptance among a public willing to look past horrific abuses against religious and ethnic minorities.

"The landslide win for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD means they are still supported after all their failures to protect and defend minorities and are allowed to continue what they have been doing," prominent activist Ma Thinzar Shunlei Yi told VICE News. She was one of several people to boycott the poll over the discrimination surrounding it, including the barring of several Rohingya candidates who tried to run.

The country has also been battling a powerful second wave of the coronavirus, leading many to risk their health for the right to vote while standing in line with masks and face shields. But political observers said the public health crisis served as a convenient pretext for the ruling NLD to consolidate power and silence the opposition, many of whom called for a delay to the November vote over safety concerns. The military also still controls a quarter of parliament under the constitution it drafted, standing in the way of any major constitutional change no matter who wins.

"There was never any real doubt about Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party winning a majority but despite all the bravado, it's still hard to call Myanmar a democracy when the military still gets to appoint serving soldiers to parliamentary seats," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director. 

He added that Myanmar's Union Election Commission has done "immense damage to Burmese democracy" by cancelling the poll in parts of the country affected by conflict, justifying the move on security grounds. He estimated that 1.5 million ethnic minorities residing in 57 townships lost their right to elect a representative as a result. These areas also happen to be in places where Suu Kyi's popularity has plummeted among minorities who distrust the Bamar-dominated government.

For those who did vote but chose not to support Suu Kyi, the election was a chance to cast a ballot for candidates from other parties in hopes of more diverse political make-up in parliament.

"Aung San Suu Kyi controls everything. She should give freedom to young people," said Ko Kyaw Naing, a 56-year-old from Kyauktada township in Yangon who did not vote for her. 

"I want a clean and democratic government. Not one that cancels elections….where they can't win."

Aung Naing Soe in Yangon contributed reporting.