After the election: Reflections from Khin Khin Mra
by Bethia Burgess
In the days after Myanmar’s 2020 election, I spoke to ethnic women around Myanmar about their perspectives on the results and the issues that are important to them as a new government is formed. This is the first of a short series where I share their reflections.
In an uncertain year, the NLD proved a safe choice at the ballot
Five years ago, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) claimed a commanding victory in Myanmar’s first democratic election since the military began stepping back in government.
Like many others, Khin Khin Mra, an ethnic Rakhine woman working on governance and gender equality in Myanmar, had anticipated an NLD victory, saying they were “the only viable choice” for voters in the political context. “With the 25% guaranteed military representation, the majority of people think the NLD is the only major party that can deter military dominance by a USDP-military alliance,” says Khin Khin.
“As such, this choice has also impacted on ethnic political parties’ voting results which are not as high as was expected. The same applies to other small democratic parties, leaving brilliant candidates out of the race.”
This is partly a result of Myanmar’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which exaggerates electoral majorities and makes it more difficult for small parties to gain seats. In a country like Myanmar where small ethnic parties abound, proportional representation electoral systems are often recommended.
Will the NLD’s victory please everyone?
If the streets of Yangon are any indication, there is an abundance of enthusiasm about the election results. Celebrations have drawn thousands of revellers to the streets in the nights following the election, ‘painting the town red’ with a sea of NLD flags and attire. The crowds are even larger than those after the NLD’s first victory in 2015, but it will take significant effort by the government to translate this euphoria into a lasting, nationwide satisfaction.
Khin Khin believes that the success of the NLD at the ballot box comes with a responsibility to improve on their record for ethnic rights.
“While people chose the NLD party as an alternative to possible ‘strong men’ rule, the question is how an NLD government will incorporate ethnic voters’ interests and ensure diversity and inclusion in the formation of government.”
Khin Khin believes that the NLD needs to reflect on how their past decisions have been viewed in the past.
“For example, in Rakhine State [in the 2015 elections], the Arakan National Party’s election was considered a rare success of the ethnic movement at the polls.
“But the victory was undermined by the appointment of an NLD member as the Chief Minister of the state, and the national government’s subsequent lack of engagement with Rakhine political leaders.” In order to improve on this past performance, she adds, “it is essential to support and work with all ethnic parties and other democratic parties to encourage dialogue between them, as well as creating opportunities to give smaller parties and ethnic people a voice.”
The country’s struggles to find a political solution for peace continue
Despite their electoral victory, there is little argument that the NLD failed to impress many supporters with its progress towards a stable peace in its first term in office. Rather than reflecting their endorsement, many ethnic nationalities who voted for the NLD have described their choice as “a lesser of two evils”. Needless to say, the NLD has a great deal ahead of them if they are to turn this image around.
“The NLD should prioritise the peace process to make it meaningful and achieve positive changes. With the ongoing armed conflicts in ethnic areas, I think it is important for the NLD to find solutions to the conflict and a way for civilian government oversight over armed conflicts,” says Khin Khin.
“The NLD is in the position and has the power to prevent history repeating itself in terms of the political grievances in ethnic areas.”
Khin Khin also commended the successes of Arakan and Shan ethnic parties in the election, being wary of the country’s history of one-power rule.
“It is not ideal when a political landscape is dominated by one party,” she notes.
“Power concentrated in the hands of one party can lead to state capture. The NLD government needs to consider principles of diversity and inclusion when forming the new government. It’s important for the NLD government to build democratic checks and balances by appointing more roles and amplifying the voices of members of ethnic political parties. To strengthen democratic norms, they need to improve on women’s participation. This can also provide hope and encouragement for positive outcomes in Myanmar’s peace process.”