Covid-19 or Not, Myanmar Will Go to the Polls as Scheduled

Despite a wave of Covid-19 infections in the country, in particular in Yangon, the authorities are determined that the 8 November polls will be conducted as scheduled.

People wearing facemasks wait for a bus under an election campaign poster in Yangon on 7 October 2020. (Photo: Sai Aung Main, AFP)
Nyi Nyi Kyaw

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

12 October 2020

Myanmar has been facing a new wave of Covid-19 cases since the middle of August, and it may not manage to flatten the curve soon. Still, this has not daunted the authorities from pushing ahead with the polls, as scheduled, on 8 November.

As of 11 October, Myanmar had recorded 27,974 diagnosed coronavirus cases, 646 deaths and 9,742 recoveries. The present wave originated in Rakhine State in the west of Myanmar. Between 16 August and 3 October the state recorded 1,294 new Covid-19 cases. The wave then spread to Yangon – the country’s former capital and its most populated and most important commercial centre. Reporting around 75 per cent of the total cases of the ongoing wave, the Yangon Region has become the hotspot. It has been under a stay-at-home order since 21 September. At the national level, Myanmar has been reporting 1,000 or more cases every day since 29 September. It will not be able to flatten the curve any time soon.

In mid-September, 24 parties close to the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw called on the Union Election Commission (UEC) to consider rescheduling the November polls. The group included the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the country’s former ruling party, now in opposition. Spokespersons, leaders and candidates from some additional parties, such as the People’s Party, have been echoing the same call on their Facebook pages, although they have not themselves made explicit calls for postponement.

The UEC said nay to the poll postponement request, but pledged to implement safety measures at polling stations. On 7 October, Professor Dr Zaw Wai Soe, vice chairman of the Yangon Region’s Committee on the Prevention, Control and Treatment of Covid-19, said that the region had sufficient capacity to handle the spike in infections. In the likely scenario in which the Yangon Region, and perhaps some townships in Rakhine State, do not report a declining trend closer to election day, the UEC may postpone voting in those two regions but not elsewhere.

Dr Myo Nyunt, spokesperson of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, has opined that postponing the elections while Myanmar is facing an unprecedented public health crisis whose end is unknown would lead to a political crisis. Important ethnic parties such as the Kachin State People’s Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy agree with this position. Those parties and other ethnic parties – including the Mon Unity Party, the Chin National League for Democracy and the Kayah State Democratic Party – have continued campaigning both online and offline to the degree possible in pandemic-stricken Myanmar.

At the national level, Myanmar has been reporting 1,000 or more cases every day since 29 September. It will not be able to flatten the curve any time soon.

On 6 October State Counsellor and de-facto head of government Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who also chairs the NLD, said in a televised speech: “I want to talk about something as important to the country as Covid-19. It is about our general elections.” She declared, “our general elections have already started”, referring to the advance voting of Myanmar citizens overseas that had begun five days earlier.

To allay public concerns about voting amid the pandemic, the state counsellor added that worried Myanmar voters only need “to feel worried only to a certain extent”. She reminded voters that it was their duty to both vote and to obey public health guidelines. The following day she inspected a demonstration of voting under Covid-19 guidelines at a public school in Naypyidaw. On 10 October the UEC announced advance voting between 29 October and 5 November for senior citizens of ages of 60 and above in 34 constituencies with 5,000 or more residents per square kilometre – 29 and five constituencies in Yangon and Mandalay Regions, respectively.

There may be manifold reasons for the dogged approach being taken by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the UEC. Despite the hike in recent weeks in the number of infections and deaths, they are, relatively, much less than in other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. In addition, nobody knows if the current wave will end in December or so; therefore, holding the elections on time will prevent a potential political crisis because the term of the present parliament will end on 31 January 2021. And while the wave is seeing a surge in Yangon, the pandemic is largely under control in the country.

The import of all this is clear: while the fears about voting during the pandemic are warranted, the surge in Covid-19 cases is not a deal-breaker. After all, it should be said that other polls have been held in Covid-19 afflicted countries such as Singapore and South Korea. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the UEC are determined to see Myanmar voters go to the polls in most if not all constituencies on 8 November.

Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Assistant Professor (adjunct) in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/156

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