How democratic is Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar really?

No one was surprised when Aung San Suu Kyi won an absolute majority in Myanmar’s elections. Neither international observers, nor the media, the country’s population or even Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). While part of this is down to Suu Kyi’s unwavering popularity in Myanmar, the other part can be explained through government-imposed voting restrictions. 

The election was cancelled in some areas of Myanmar – NLD officials claim this had to be done to prevent outbreaks of violence and to stop the spread of Covid-19. But the restrictions disproportionately affected minorities. NLD’s opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and external observers have criticised this as undemocratic and unfair.

Myanmar used to be the poster-child for democratic development. After almost fifty years of military rule, the population voted to become a “discipline-flourishing democracy” in 2008. Two years later, the first elections were held, although they could not be classified as democratic. The military still controlled the country and is commonly seen as having influenced the election outcome – their favoured party, the USDP won. A year later, the military junta was dissolved and democratic reforms started to take shape. 

Of course, none of this could have happened without activists, protests and violent clashes. Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the faces of democratic revolution in Myanmar. Much of her life was spent campaigning and protesting for change – during the 1988 pro-democracy uprisings, she became a national icon. International fame and admiration followed quickly. Together with other activists, the military junta placed her under house arrest and tried to silence her through any means. When the NLD won the 1990 elections under her leadership, the military government refused to concede.

In 2015, when the first free election took place, she finally emerged victorious, and announced big plans to democratise Myanmar. But she has fallen, or rather crashed, from grace since then. World leaders once praised Suu Kyi, but have since become critical. She is commonly credited with human rights violations, a lack of democratic development and worsening internal conflict.

Nevertheless, the majority of the population seems almost devoted to Suu Kyi. Her personal and family history play a role – her father contributed to the country gaining independence from Britain – and many believe that she is shielding Myanmar from a new military regime. For most Myanma, Suu Kyi is still the hero who led them to a better life. 

But for others, nothing has changed under her government. Rohingya muslims, for example, are still being systematically persecuted – Myanmar’s military has led a crackdown on their villages since 2017. Arrests, killings, violence and rape are common and have forced over a million Rohingyas to flee the country. Incidents like this have caused international perception to shift significantly. Once hailed a democratic wonder woman, an icon of peace and development, last year Suu Kyi had to defend her government against genocide charges in the International Court of Justice. Some countries have even cut development funding and diplomatic ties have been strained.

Many other minority groups also continue to face exclusion and discrimination. Last week’s election provides extensive evidence for this, as opposition candidates were detained and voting was cancelled in some areas of the country. Ongoing violence meant that the regions were “not in a position to hold a free and fair election” according to the election committee. 

Around 2.6 million ethnic-minority voters were excluded. To an extent, safety concerns may be valid, but it is paradoxical that completely preventing voters from casting their ballots is the more “free and fair” solution. Especially when considering the fact that the areas in which elections were cancelled are the ones that are more critical of the current government – their votes would have most likely boosted Suu Kyi’s opposition. 

Regardless of polling stations simply not opening, Rohingyas were not allowed to vote or run as candidates. The group has no citizenship rights in Myanmar and as per this election, that seems unlikely to change any time soon. Encouragement from abroad also did not help. Western powers had released a statement about the election, in which they called for the inclusion of minorities: “We underline the importance of ensuring individuals of all communities, including Rohingya, are able to participate safely, fully, and equally incredible and inclusive elections.” There was no reaction from Myanmar.

Ahead of the election, journalists, activists and opposition candidates were arrested. This approach to politics and especially the charges brought against the individuals are reminiscent of tactics employed by the military regime. It seems as though not much has truly changed in Myanmar. 

Suu Kyi’s critics have also raised an array of other points besides the election. Some of her former supporters have cut ties with her and established opposition parties in consequence. They are disappointed in the disparity between her promises and actions. A lack of reforms, continued oppression, strong military power and persecution have frustrated them. 

Besides the exclusion of and violence against minorities like the Rohingya, some of the main critique points are the undemocratic elements that remain part of the constitution. For example, a percentage of government seats are still automatically assigned to the military. Not only is this questionable in terms of democratically electing representatives and leaders, but it also prevents a clean break from the former regime. Its oppressive values are therefore still represented in government, and the military continues to wield power and thereby influence political decisions. 

Spokesmen for Suu Kyi’s party have also given questionable statements at times. After the election, for example, NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said that people seem to have recognised the need for only one ruling party (as opposed to a coalition) as political conflict would be minimised through this. Aligning this with democratic values is difficult because  freedom of speech and political debate are key ingredients of a healthy democracy. However, Nyunt, and by extension the NLD, do not seem keen to debate their political decisions and stances. 

Myanmar is still far from a healthy democracy. The overall political situation is fragile and precarious. Of course, no one expected the country to completely transform in Suu Kyi’s first five years as head of the government. But the distinctive lack of progress, paired with the worsening internal conflict, are cause for concern – especially when considering Suu Kyi’s past as an activist. 

The recent election underlines this. Censorship and voter suppression have no place in a budding democracy. The NLD’s opposition parties know this. To them, the current government more or less mirrors the military rule, and they will not accept this. So whilst Suu Kyi might not bring democracy to Myanmar, others still have a chance, despite the seemingly unbreakable belief most Myanmas still have in Suu Kyi.