We're Live Bangla Monday, October 26, 2020

Second COVID spike threatens to disrupt Myanmar’s elections

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Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi is hoping for a landslide win in the upcoming election.

Myanmar goes to the polls in five weeks’ time amid growing concerns about the impact of the COVID virus on voter safety and doubts about the credibility of the election result. The government is adamant that the election will go ahead as planned, even though the country is reeling from a ‘second wave’ of the virus. The pandemic has virtually paralyzed most of Myanmar, raising significant and substantial questions about the advisability of the polls going ahead. Opposition political parties are clamouring for a postponement. 

Campaigning has been halted in most of the country. The media cannot effectively cover the elections because of travel restrictions, and international election observers have been effectively denied access, while local monitors are severely hampered. 

Most opposition political parties are complaining that the COVID crisis has given the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi an unfair electoral advantage.

Though many Myanmar voters seem undaunted by the gravity of the current situation and are eager to vote in what many analysts and diplomats see as a referendum on the government’s last five years in office. 

“I am eager to vote on Election Day because I want the next government to change our education system and to reduce commodity prices,” Poe Pwint Phyu –a 31-year-old medical supplies representative told SAM. “And I will certainly vote for the NLD because I hope Suu’snext government will fill the gaps our country so dearly needs to,” she added.

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At the end of last week COVID cases and deaths were still soaring, seemingly out of control: over 20 people a day are dying, while the number of people diagnosed with the virus is now over a thousand a day, according to government’s health officials. All states and regions in Myanmar -- except the tiny Kayah state which borders Thailand -- have reported coronavirus cases, though the majority of the incidents and the highest death toll is in Yangon -- the country’s commercial capital and the most populous city. 

Earlier last month, China locked down the city of Ruili in Yunnan province, a major land-border crossing point with Myanmar, after two COVID cases were discovered, thus severely disrupting cross-border trade. Meanwhile, in a bid to prevent a further spread of infections, Thailand has stepped up security patrols along its 2000-kilometer shared border with Myanmar.

Myanmar now has the fourth-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases among the 10-member regional bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but is third in deaths behind the Philippines and Indonesia.

Two weeks ago, Yangon went into strict lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Ten days earlier, all domestic flights were cancelled. Residents in the country’s main metropolises – Mandalay, the capital Naypyidaw and Yangon – have been banned from leaving the city. Checkpoints are in place on highways. There is an eerie silence on the cities’ roads though many supermarkets and convenience stores are still operating with reduced working hours. 

In Yangon, movement between townships has been banned. People are only allowed out to buy food or seek medical treatment – and then only with a government-issued pass. Work-from-home orders have been implemented for offices and factories in Yangon, except for those deemed to be essential workers. This includes those working in banks, the food industry and the health services. All garment factories have been closed until further notice.

Journalists are complaining that they have been confined to their quarters. They argue they should be treated as essential workers, especially with the elections just around the corner. All newspapers and magazines have stopped printing physical copies and are also reducing the public’s access to independent information on candidates and parties, other than the governing NLD – though they are still operating their digital editions.

“Our rules and regulations are not meant to restrict people,” the country’s de facto leader and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said in her televised speech introducing the new lockdown measures. “We intend to contain the disease,” she pledged. 

Unlike earlier this year when COVID first emerged, people are now abiding by the regulations and heeding the State Counsellor’s warnings. Every night Aung San Suu is on television, discussing a plethora of national issues and providing critical leadership in the fight to contain the virus. 

But of course, it is very difficult to distinguish between her role as the country’s key civilian leader and that of the ruling party’s main figurehead seeking re-election with the polls only weeks away. These elections are now undoubtedly COVID elections.

“Covid has changed the landscape of the election,” according to the analyst and entrepreneur Zaw Naing. “Her presence on Facebook is a massive win … she’s everywhere – on social media, television and the front page of the government newspapers. It’s all you see,” he added.

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“It will almost certainly seal the deal for these elections, as there’s little room left to move on the campaign trail – with social distancing requirements and now the ban on travel and other constraints – social media will play a critical role, even more so than in the previous election,” the head of Mandalay Technology told SAM.

In fact, the Union Election Commission (UEC) which controls the electoral process, has recently banned campaigning in areas with stay-at-home orders. But more generally door-to-door campaigning and political rallies are limited in this campaign – unlike 2015. “This is an election which is really being fought digitally – on social media,” said Felix Hass, a business consultant and analyst based in Yangon. 

From the very early stages of the emergence of coronavirus in Myanmar -- back in March – Aung San Suu Kyi has shown strong leadership, reinforced later by the astute use of social media – on Facebook, her lectures and discussions have demonstrated the government and the State Counsellor’s command of the situation. It has left the other political parties flat footed and bewildered; and it has left the country’s military – who are an integral part of the power structure -- side-lined. 

But the opposition parties are demanding that the polls, scheduled for the 8th November, be postponed. More than 20 parties, including the largest opposition party, the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party, recently asked the commission to postpone the elections.

The NLD, though is determined to press ahead. Its spokesperson Myo Nyunt told local journalists: “Postponing the election when it is uncertain how the situation might develop in the future will simply result in more problems, including a political crisis on top of the current public health and economic problems.”

The election commission has ruled out a delay. “We have no plans to postpone the entire election, or the election in any constituency, due to COVID 19. We will arrange for people to vote safely, and we are discussing [measures] with the Ministry of Health,” said a senior official in an online briefing.

The pandemic poses problems for the NLD. Under the 2008 constitution, power in Myanmar is delicately balanced between the civilian government and the military. So although the pandemic may give the ruling party an enormous electoral advantage, delaying the polls may pose even greater problems, leading to a potential constitutional crisis – especially if they cannot take place before the end of January, when under the constitution the new parliament is due to convene and prepare for the election of the next president and the new government. 

But there is no consensus among the political parties on how to resolve a constitutional crisis if elections are postponed beyond the current parliamentary term. The main opposition party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)– which is aligned with the military -- says a State of Emergency would be required in the event of a long postponement, which could lead to the temporary control of government by the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), with the commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, taking command of the executive, something Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would not accept. 

During the last five years government has studiously resisted declaring a national ‘state of emergency’ to avoid the army chief taking control of the country. In fact, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has avoided calling an NDSC meeting since it took office in April 2015 – to avoid a military take-over. 

The forthcoming elections are almost certain to go ahead, and although they may be flawed, the general public is hoping that they will represent a step forward on the road to genuine democracy, inclusiveness and good governance. 

“I hope the next government will give priority to reviving sustainable economic development, improving environment protection and raising peoples’ standard of living,” said Poe Pwint Phyu. 

“For the start of a new era of democracy, the next government [Cabinet] must be formed with a group of technocrats in charge to formulate evidence-based policymaking -- instead of opting for loyal people because of political reasons,” she added.