BANGKOK, THAILAND — Two years after a coup snuffed out Myanmar’s short-lived democratic experiment, the country’s military is planning elections that analysts warn could spark further bloodshed as opposition to junta rule rages on.
Observers also say the planned poll cannot be free and fair under the present circumstances, with one analyst characterising it as a mere “performance” aimed at justifying the junta’s hold on power.
Allegations of voter fraud in the last election in November 2020 — won resoundingly by democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi’s party — were the army’s excuse for seizing power on 1 February 2021.
Though the claims were never substantiated, the generals arrested Suu Kyi and other top civilian leaders in a series of pre-dawn raids.
With the political opposition now decimated, and the junta buttressed by tacit backing from close allies Russia and China, the military is expected to hold a new election later this year — no later than August, according to the constitution.
But with resistance raging from the hilly jungles of the borderlands to the plains of the army’s traditional recruiting grounds, people across swathes of the country will be unlikely to vote — and run the risk of reprisals if they do.
Any junta-held poll will be “like a cart with only one wheel”, a former civil servant in Yangon who has been on strike since the coup told AFP.
“There is no way it will bring any progress,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.
In the jungle near the border with Thailand, Lin Lin, a member of one of the dozens of “People’s Defence Force” groups battling the junta, vowed elections would have no bearing on their mission to oust the military from Myanmar’s politics.
“We will hold on to our weapons until we get our elected government,” he told AFP.
More than a million people have been displaced by violence since the coup, according to the UN, with the military accused of bombing and shelling civilians and committing war crimes as it struggles to crush resistance.
Last week UN human rights chief Volker Turk said the country faced a “catastrophic situation, which sees only deepening human suffering and rights violations on a daily basis”.
The junta-imposed state of emergency is due to expire at the end of January, after which the constitution says the authorities must move to hold fresh elections.
The government of junta supremo Min Aung Hlaing has not set a date, but last week gave all existing and aspiring political parties two months to register with its election commission.
Military negotiators are working to stitch together a large enough patchwork of constituencies to make an election credible, including ethnic rebel groups that have stayed out of the post-coup chaos, and smaller, regional parties.
But voting will likely be impossible in many areas of the country, said Htwe Htwe Thein at Curtin University in Australia.
“In areas they do control, it is possible that people could be forced to vote, and vote for the junta-affiliated party or parties,” she told AFP.
“People would certainly assume that they are being watched — and there could be punishment for not voting or voting against the junta.”
Threats have also been made by anti-coup fighters against those cooperating with the election, with local media reporting several attacks on teams verifying voter lists in commercial hub Yangon.
The junta’s “technical ability to conduct anything approaching even clearly fake elections will be circumscribed by lack of bureaucratic capacity, confusion, boycotts and violence,” independent analyst David Mathieson told AFP.
Any poll would be “beyond fraudulent”, Mathieson warned.
“These aren’t real elections, remember. They’re a squalid performance to justify the (junta’s) coup d’etat claims of a corrupt 2020 election,” he said.
‘Determination and defiance’
With the generals shielded at the United Nations by Moscow and Beijing — and the international community grappling with crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan — many in Myanmar have given up on help from outside.
It would take nothing short of “a miracle” for Myanmar’s opposition to get the kind of weapons support currently rolling into Ukraine, said Mathieson.
Close ally Russia has already come out in support of the polls, and while Washington has urged the international community to reject any election as a “sham”, diplomatic sources say neighbours such as Thailand, India and China will likely give their tacit approval.
But whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to end the violence that is convulsing the country.
“The mission is to attack the military dictatorship with the determination of defiance,” said Lin Lin from the jungle near the Thai border.
“When an elected government is selected by people, we will rest.”