Myanmar’s electoral process is undermined by systemic problems and rights abuses that will deprive people of their right to fairly elect their government, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. Parliamentary, state, and local elections are scheduled for November 8, 2020.
The national elections will be Myanmar’s first since 2015, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the second contested election since 1990, when the military annulled the NLD’s overwhelming victory. Electoral problems include discriminatory citizenship and other laws that bar most Rohingya Muslim voters and candidates; reservation of 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the military; criminal prosecutions of government critics; unequal party access to government media; and the lack of an independent election commission and complaints resolution mechanism.
“It’s a milestone for Myanmar to be holding a second multiparty election, but however long the lines are to vote, this election will be fundamentally flawed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The election can’t be free and fair so long as a quarter of the seats are reserved for the military, access to state media isn’t equal, government critics face censorship or arrest, and Rohingya are denied participation in the vote.”
Although there has been a recent surge in Covid-19 cases in the country, election officials say the elections will take place as scheduled. The Union Election Commission said that it would increase the number of polling places to limit overcrowding and provide personal protective equipment to poll workers. Many opposition parties have said that the government should postpone the vote because they are unable to campaign in the current circumstances.
Because of the increase in Covid-19 cases, the authorities have issued stay-at-home orders in the commercial capital, Yangon, and parts of Mandalay, Rakhine State, Mon State, Bago, Ayeyarwaddy, and elsewhere. Only people engaging in “essential” business are allowed to travel between townships in affected areas.
On September 20, the government declared journalism a nonessential business, leaving many journalists subject to stay-at-home orders and creating significant barriers for their travel to election-related events and for publications to produce physical copies of newspapers and magazines. Many well-known media outlets have stopped selling newspapers, while the two state-owned newspapers, which are supportive of the government, have been able to continue printing.
“The NLD government, which suffered under military oppression for decades, should recognize that an election without media freedom isn’t fair,” Adams said. “The government should reverse its decision and declare media workers ‘essential.’”
The Myanmar government is using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise Rohingya and prevent them from running for office, even though most Rohingya families have lived in Myanmar for generations, Human Rights Watch said. Many Rohingya were hopeful that after the 2015 elections, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi would change these laws and policies. Instead, the NLD has supported the military as it carried out ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and possible genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
None of the one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another several hundred thousand dispersed in other countries will be allowed to vote. The authorities have barred most Rohingya remaining in Myanmar, estimated at 600,000, from registering to vote in the election. This includes approximately 130,000 Rohingya detained in camps in central Rakhine State since 2012, where they endure the crimes against humanity of persecution and apartheid and other serious rights abuses. Voter lists, posted around the country in July and August, are absent from Rohingya camps and villages.
The Union Election Commission’s myVoter2020 app, developed with the support of international election organizations, includes unnecessary and inflammatory race and religion information about candidates and their parents. A candidate in Rakhine State, Dus Muhammed, also known as Aye Win, of the Democracy and Human Rights Party, is listed as “Bengali-Bamar.” Bengali is a racist term that Burmese nationalists widely use for the Rohingya.
“It’s appalling that Aung San Suu Kyi is determined to hold an election that excludes Rohingya voters and candidates,” Adams said. “She knows that real democracy cannot flourish in an apartheid regime imposed on the Rohingya.”