Myanmar’s junta switch to PR system beneficial only to them
First published on Burma Associated Press on 11 March 2022, "Myanmar’s junta switch to PR system beneficial only to them" was produced under the ANFREL Southeast Asia Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.
The Myanmar military regime’s plan to switch to a proportional representation system for their planned election next year will not bring more representation due to the existence of the 2008 Constitution and a move to increase their winning chance, experts said.
After detaining dozens of leaders and members of the National League for Democracy party including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military announced a state of emergency and poised themselves as the “caretaker government” with allegations of electoral frauds in the 2020 general elections where the NLD won a majority.
Although there were controversies in the 2020 election with disenfranchisement of Rohingya voters and holding the election during the COVID-19 pandemic, several election observers said there were no irregularities on election day.
“As far as we can tell, the Tatmadaw’s claims of election fraud are entirely baseless. Unfortunately, we do not have access to the 2020 voter lists and thus cannot conclusively disprove the claims, but a year has passed since the coup and we still have not seen concrete evidence that would support the vague claims of widespread voter fraud by the junta,” said Amael Vier from Asian Network for Free Elections, which monitored the polls in Myanmar in 2015 and 2020 as well as the by-elections.
ANFREL only witnessed “minor irregularities” on voting day and nothing related to voter fraud. “What we observed was a participatory and transparent process whose results can be trusted,” he added.
Many of the ousted lawmakers and those who fled the arrest after the coup have formed a parallel government called the National Unity Government, which represents the will of the voters in 2020.
The military, calling themselves the State Administration Council (SAC), initially said the fresh elections were to be held within a year’s time. However, the generals decided to extend its initial one-year state of emergency to two years, with elections planned in August 2023 during a televised speech by Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, last August.
“Depending on the state stability and peace we are making our utmost effort to hold a multiparty general election in August 2023,” he said on state-run media while also labelling the NLD party as “terrorists”.
And on eve of the anniversary of the coup, on January 31, 2022, Min Aung Hlaing during the National Defense Security Council meeting said that the state of emergency will be further extended to another six months due to instability in the country. (link: https://myanmaritv.com/news/ndsc-announcement-declaration-state-emergency-extended-further-6-months)
He also added that the extension was “to set the right track for a genuine, disciplined multi-party democracy and to continue preparations for the multi-party democracy general election” in 2023.
One of the first things the junta did after the coup was to replace the chair of Union Election Commission, Myanmar’s national poll body, and its members favourable to them. The current chair who is also a former military general, Thein Soe, served as chair in the 2010 election.
Min Aung Hlaing also pushed for the change to the PR system for more inclusivity and to allow better representation.
According to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, Myanmar is currently adopting the plurality system where the candidate who wins the most votes is ultimately the winner of the parliamentary seat. This also resulted in two parties namely the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party taking the dominant seats in parliament and popularity.
“It is necessary to consider PR with all participants. It is necessary to amend the way representatives are elected and the election system,” Min Aung Hlaing said on state-run media last August.
Proportional Representation is one of the most commonly used electoral systems in the world where the parliament seats reflect the proportional of the total votes cast for each party. The advantage of the PR is to prevent one party from holding a majority but also has the disadvantage on representation of ethnic parties in the case of Myanmar as the seats are shared according to the percentage of total votes.
Myanmar’s two parliaments are the Upper House (Amyotha Hluttaw) and the Lower House (Pyithu Hluttaw), but under the constitution the military holds 25% of the seats, appointed by the army chief, in both houses. Both houses make up the union parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw).
Expert Aung Htoo, in a piece on BNI Online, was quoted after the results of the 2020 elections, that PR is a better fit for a country as politically diverse as Myanmar. In the same article, author Nai Banya Mon of Federal Affairs and Policy Centre, wrote that the key for ethnic people to build a genuine federal union is to draft a new federal and democratic constitution or make amendments to the military-drafted one and adopt a voting system which is free, fair and inclusive.
Aung Htoo’s points on the constitution drafted by the military being the biggest obstacle is echoed by others. Furthermore, analysts have expressed doubt on the move for “all-inclusivity” and the benefits of the PR system. Some see the election as a justification for the coup.
A PR system in theory allows for more representation but the limitations put by the 2008 Constitution already presents a challenge even before the take over as the military makes up 25% of the parliament.
Experts say that the adopting a PR system would weaken the forces of democracy in the parliament due to military-appointed MPs as well as the military proxy parties such as the USDP and political parties who are displaying pro-military attitude as they are calling for the change to PR and engaging with the regime and military-appointed election commission.
During the commission’s initial meeting calling parties to discuss about PR, 51 political parties attended and 38 parties including NLD boycotted.
“People are not ready to exercise PR. As long as the military is in the Parliament and the Constitution remains unchanged, we don’t support switching to PR,” Daw Khin San Hlaing, an NLD central executive committee member, was quoted by exile media Irrawaddy in March 2021.
Back in 2014, the Upper House approved the change to PR but the Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, a former general and protege of military strongman Than Shwe, quietly dropped the change to PR as it was “unconstitutional”. And for Min Aung Hlaing to bring back this system after NLD won a landslide again in 2020, signals that the military wants to win an election and have “legitimacy”.
“The military know about the possibility of PR for a long time but they’ve never been in the position of power to push it directly until now. I believe the military regrets that they went with the first past the post system in the Constitution and wanted to change that,” said a Myanmar-focused analyst who requested anonymity due to security reasons. “The military wants the legitimacy and they want to be able to hide behind it. So, they’re going to move forward (with the election) in however way they can.”
“The question on why they are bringing back the PR system is that because the military think they have a better chance of winning the election but it’s unfair because they took power in a coup and then changed the rules of the game,” the analyst added.
“There can never be a free and fair election under a military-drafted constitution that fails to respect the principles of federal democracy—one of the goals we held most dearly for a time after our independence. Myanmar’s nation-building process must not lose sight of this noble endeavor, and in this regard, the 2008 constitution diverted us onto a dangerous detour. Bereft of legitimacy, competence, or public support, Myanmar’s military has disgraced itself as a serious political body, let alone one capable of organizing an election,” said activist Thinzar Shun Lei Yi.
Another factor experts and analysts point to is the junta’s annulment of the 2020 election results, where NLD won a majority of 396 seats of the union parliament and candidates from 10 political parties also won several seats.
“Citizens across Myanmar and people around the world already knew that the election fraud accusations were just a lame excuse to make way for the military coup,” NLD lawmaker Phyu Phyu Thin, who’s also secretary of the NUG’s parliament Committee Represent Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, told RFA Myanmar in July 2021.
A Myanmar expert Ko Paing, using a pseudonym due to security reasons, agreed with the lawmaker saying that “[The military] needed something to justify their take over so they’re doing it…it’s formality and reason for the coup.”
However, details of how the PR system will be adopted remains unclear as the election commission is still holding talks. The latest development was back in December when the commission held meetings with political parties to discuss which PR to adopt. (https://www.gnlm.com.mm/uec-continues-third-day-meeting-of-electoral-reforms-with-political-parties/)
Likelihood of an election?
The likelihood of an election is a question many experts are raising as the junta’s coup has crippled the country’s economy and brought instability for the citizens.
After a year of the takeover, the junta failed to establish control over the civil service and business community. Both sectors faced the civil disobedience movement, the people’s response against the military and coup by not going to work to cripple the country’s mechanism.
Although businesses saw return of employees, companies cozying up or in cahoots with the generals face boycotting by the consumers. Recent examples include the boycott of Myanmar Plaza, a shopping mall in Yangon, which to this day sees little to no customers after the mall’s security members brutally assaulted and stopped youths protesting the military inside. Military-linked products and items are also targets of the boycott movement.
Due to nationwide strike CDM, many positions are vacant in the public sector as many job offerings can be seen posted by the government ministries in the state-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar and on social media.
The Myanmar currency is experiencing stagflation and cash shortage still continues with people losing confidence in the system.
The major highlight of the instability caused by the junta is the arrests and killings of citizens. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 1400 people have been killed and over 11,000 arrested by the junta.
The junta’s brutality has led to the rise of armed resistance where many youths and pro-democracy activists including celebrities from around the country have left their homes to ethnic armed forces controlled area to receive training and formed the People’s Defence Force (PDF), an armed wing of the NUG back in May. The armed resistance include bombings of military-affiliated structures and telecom towers, assassination of military informants and explosive attacks of military convoys and fighting in the jungles.
The violence and killing by the military have only escalated since the coup. In December, a military vehicle rammed into a group of protesters killing at least five and injuring others. Local media reported that some have been arrested by security forces. On Christmas Eve, over 30 people including two staff from INGO Save the Children, were killed and burned by military forces in Mo So village, Kayah State. In Karen State and Sagaing Region, located in upper Myanmar, the military has been using heavy weaponry as well as attacks from helicopters and even fighter jets on villages.
“Polling stations set up by the junta will definitely become targets for the PDFs and resistance groups. You’ll be like sitting ducks. No one will go out and vote if their lives are on the line,” a Yangon-based journalist said.
Myanmar expert Ko Paing said that “The people - voters who have their livelihoods and financial status disrupted and destroyed by the junta will not be going out to vote. It doesn’t matter whether the electoral system is changed or not because the voters want to see the generals gone and they have already voted fairly in the 2020 elections.”
The credibility of the 2023 elections are questionable as the current poll body chair Thein Soe is notorious for allowing vote-stealing by the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010 where it emerged as the winner. He also barred international observers and reporters from entering Myanmar.
“The 2023 Myanmar election will not be like the elections in Turkmenistan where everyone votes for one guy. There will be a few parties but they will either be pro-military or crippled democratic parties. It will be like the illusion of choice,” the Myanmar analyst commented.
A decade ago, in a press conference in October 2010, a month before the elections, Thein Soe said “there’s no need for foreign journalists” to cover the 2010 election and that the country also has journalists and the Ministry of Information for the job.
If the possibility arrives that threats might be used to get people to vote, they say they are thinking of ways to make sure ballot paper is wasted.
One voter who cast his ballot in the 2020 election said “If I am forced to vote and when I get the ballot sheet I will write “Ma Aye Loe” on it.” “Ma Aye Loe” is a wordplay of Min Aung Hlaing’s name in Burmese which is also used as a profanity translated as “motherf****er”.
Another voter had a similar idea: “I will write “military dogs” and draw a bone on the ballot paper.”