Voting as Civic Duty, A New Norm in Myanmar

The reasons for voting in Myanmar are helping to consolidate its new democracy.

A voter shows her inked finger after voting at a polling station in Naypyidaw on November 8, 2020. (Photo: Thet Aung, AFP)
Nyi Nyi Kyaw

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

10 November 2020

Myanmar went to the polls on Sunday, in the second free and fair general election since the start of the country’s ‘democratic’ transition in 2010. Voting in Myanmar remains highly partisan and emotional. However, casting one ballot as a civic duty has emerged as an additional reason that many citizens go to the polls. This implies that voting, and electoral democracy by extension, is solidifying as a habit in Myanmar.

The people of Myanmar lost their right to vote in a multiparty electoral democracy during military rule from 1962 to 1974. A period of military-dominated socialist one-party rule followed until 1988. Another long period of military rule from 1988 until 2011 left people entirely disenfranchised.

Today, voting is not compulsory in Myanmar. It is therefore critical that Myanmar citizens realize their civic duty of voting and develop it as a habit, so that electoral democracy solidifies in a country still transitioning towards the removal of the military, or Tatmadaw, from politics.

Admittedly, citizens who approached voting this past weekend as a civic duty are mostly overt and covert supporters of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Yet, these same NLD voters did not advance a similar normative reason for voting in November 2015, when they voted in the first free and fair elections since the start of Myanmar’s transition. The dominant narrative then was Manichean. They claimed that the contest between the Tatmadaw’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), then in power, and the NLD was one of evil-versus-good.

Even Buddhist monks, who may not vote under Myanmar’s electoral rules, encouraged citizens to exercise their rights.

Most NLD supporters are both personalistic and rational. They are devoted to NLD chairwoman Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and, at the same time, see that the NLD alone can, at least for now, dislodge the power of the Tatmadaw. In addition to those personalistic and rational arguments, a growing share of voters also have constructed a narrative of voting as a civic duty, both offline and online.

For example, right after voting in Yangon’s Seikgyikanaungto constituency, 23-year old first-time female voter Lae Lae Hnin Aye attested that, “I feel like I have done my duty as a Myanmar citizen.” Myanmar Muslim voter Zaw Min Oo in the same constituency also declared, “Fortunately, I’ve cast my vote, and I’m so happy about it. I’ve done my duty as a citizen.” Another voter in Hlaing constituency said, “I went to vote to be a responsible citizen. I think voting is important.”

Sunday saw hundreds of Myanmar voters posting pictures on Facebook, a very powerful political platform in the country, of their fingers marked with indelible ink as visual proof of the fulfilment of their civic duty. Mandalay-based writer and social influencer Yin Yin Hnaung stated, “Voting is exercising a citizen’s highest power.” Even Buddhist monks, who may not vote under Myanmar’s electoral rules, encouraged citizens to exercise their rights. A Saffron Revolution monk and writer known as Min Thonnya wrote, “I may not vote myself, but I am delighted to see those with voting rights casting their ballots and fulfilling their civic duty.”

Many Myanmar voters though remain partisan and personalistic. This is especially true when they vote for the NLD, which enjoys the star power of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They may offer arguments unrelated to civic duty alone in explaining their votes.

One voter claimed, “I voted for the NLD because we need a government that is good to the people.” Another asserted, “To save the country, we have to vote … in order to fight against the common enemy, which is the old regime (the Tatmadaw). Though we cannot throw it out, as a citizen, what we can do now is vote.” A voter in Yangon’s South Okkalapa township expressed his devotion to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and said, “She is very strong, strong for the truth and our country.” Another voter said, “Mother Suu (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) made many sacrifices for us; we only need to sacrifice one day for her.”

Voting is not entirely a normative exercise of civic duty in Myanmar yet; it can and will never be. But having more citizens who exercise their voting rights as a civic duty, even if it is only one of their reasons for casting ballots, is a promising sign of the consolidation of electoral democracy in Myanmar.

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

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/180

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