Why Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election won’t be ‘free and fair’

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Women at a festival in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, Nov. 7, 2014. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Women at a festival in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, Nov. 7, 2014. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

To understand Myanmar’s road to democracy, consider its actual roads.

Smooth 20-lane highways surround the desolate new capital of Naypyidaw, revealing none of the other regions’ bumps and potholes. In bustling Yangon, traffic is gridlocked. In the north, China’s mining and logging trucks have ravaged hillside passes.

Women at a festival in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, Nov. 7, 2014. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Women at a festival in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, Nov. 7, 2014. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Myanmar’s democratic reforms, which began in 2011, have as far to go as its national infrastructure. The Nov. 8 general election, widely being billed as the country’s first free and fair ballot in 25 years, will be anything but.

First come the legal roadblocks. Myanmar is no longer ruled by a military junta, but its constitution, drafted by the military in 2008, sets aside 25 percent of seats in parliament for unelected military MPs. 75 percent of parliament must agree to any constitutional amendments, effectively giving the military veto power if elected MPs fail to reach absolute consensus.

A sneaky provision in the constitution bars candidates with foreign children from assuming the presidency. That text was presumably drafted with one person in mind–chief opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British. Recent efforts to scrap the rule were blocked by the military and its political allies. Undeterred, Suu Kyi has vowed to play puppet master if her National League for Democracy (NLD) party comes to power.

Below these constitutional concerns lies trouble in the bedrock. Hundreds of thousands of temporary citizenship card holders, the majority of whom are persecuted Rohingya Muslims, have been stripped the right to vote.

Suu Kyi recently flagged “worrying signs of religious intolerance” ahead of the election and pointed the finger at Buddhist nationalists who are peddling an improbable fear that Myanmar will become majority Muslim under her party’s leadership. That reality would require an impossible demographic boom or the rapid conversion of tens of millions of Buddhists, both unlikely scenarios.

Suu Kyi’s public reminders that religion- and race-based propaganda violate the constitution have been more a warning to her opponents and a political play than an embrace of Myanmar’s minority Muslims. Suu Kyi remains unwilling to directly and meaningfully address the Rohingya situation, and not one of her party’s 1,100 candidates is Muslim.

In Rakhine State, which many Rohingya consider home, Chinese authorities allegedly promised an official from the anti-Muslim Arakan National Party “anything” he wants, presumably on the condition that his party safeguard China’s $100 billion investment plans there. Such backroom deals, which seldom benefit citizens, are largely responsible for those ravaged roads and pillaged resources in the country’s north.

Ravaged roads in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, on Nov. 8, 2014 RNS photo by Brian Pellot.

Ravaged roads in Shan State, Northern Myanmar, on Nov. 8, 2014 RNS photo by Brian Pellot.

While foreign meddling ahead of the election is being dismissed as everyday politics, local activists have been arrested for mocking the military on Facebook.

Some lawyers allege that a double standard is being used to patrol online “hate speech,” with jokes about the ruling government and military leading to prosecution while those targeting Suu Kyi and her opposition party go ignored.

Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election may be more democratic than those of recent decades, but that’s setting the bar pretty low.

If Myanmar wants the international community to recognize its election results, the process must be truly free and fair from the start. That means scrapping rules that arbitrarily disbar candidates from office, extending voting rights to disenfranchised minorities, and abandoning intimidation and silencing tactics that violate the principles of free expression.

Absent these critical reforms, even the veneer of Naypyidaw’s pristine highways will start showing Myanmar’s troubling cracks.