myanmar election
0 9 min 2 yrs

Myanmar general election 2020 delivered a decisive win for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD). In Myanmar, a party needs at least 322 seats in the bicameral legislature to form a government and NLD has been able to secured 346 seats of the 412 that have been declared (TRT World, 2020).

As a result, the civilian leader’s party secured parliamentary majority for the second time since Myanmar’s political liberalization that started in the early 2010s.

A Hybrid Democracy

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is the largest country in Southeast Asia. Since its independence from British rule in 1948 the country has been facing multiple ethnic insurgencies. Right after its independence, conflict broke out as power was consolidated by the majority Burmans, excluding other ethnic minorities.  In 1962, the country fell under an oppressive military junta that lasted for more than 50 years. Gradual liberalization began from 2010 that led to the general elections in 2015. Following this, a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi came to power in 2016. To support further democratization, the United States (US) lifted all major sanctions against Myanmar in the same year.

In late August, 2017, the Myanmar armed forces carried out a series of violent operations in Rohingya-populated areas of Rakhine State in the name of “counter-terrorism”. In the following days, more than 742,000 Rohingyas took refuge in neighboring Bangladesh fleeing a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” (UN News, 2017).

This mass violence brought Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, essentially isolated the civilian government from the international community and highlighted the unending grip of the military.

Today Myanmar’s legal framework for general elections significantly violates the fundamental principle of democracy as 25% of all seats are reserved for serving military officers. Moreover, three important ministries – defence, border affairs and home affairs- are headed by top-ranked military officers who answer directly to the commander in chief. Similarly, any amendment to this constitutional arrangement requires approval from the military establishment as it holds the veto power.

Flow of Foreign Money with Little Impact

Despite a fundamentally flawed democratic transition and the increasing human rights violation of ethnic minorities, the western countries have continued their economic assistance to facilitate democratization in Myanmar.  The US government has invested nearly $10 million for 2020 election-related assistance. The European Union (EU) also paid more than €5.3 million to directly fund electoral processes in last two years (USHMM, 2020).

However, the funding and other material assistance from the western countries have hardly made any positive impact to ensure an inclusive electoral culture. For example, the EU funded a smartphone application to provide users easy access to details on 2020 election candidates.

Although the app was a unique idea, it openly denies the existence of Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group, instead it referred to the group as “Bengali,” essentially endorsing Myanmar’s official narrative. Moreover, the application classified the candidates based on their “race” and “religion,” openly endorsing the divisive nature of electoral politics in Myanmar (Win and Quinley III, 2020).

A Fragile Election

This year, the discriminatory citizenship laws were used to bar many candidates, and Muslims were deliberately targeted (ANFREL, 2020). Six Rohingya candidates were prevented from participating in the election, despite some of them being approved candidates in the past and one of them even won a parliamentary seat (USHMM, 2020). The election commission used such policies specifically against key Rohingya politicians.

Because of Myanmar’s many active conflicts, the election commission cancelled the holding of the polls in the states of Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, Kayin, Mon {states} and Bago region. The situation was especially dire in the volatile Rakhine (state). Around three quarters of all registered voters in Rakhine state were disenfranchised by election postponements in nine entire townships and parts of four others.

In addition, around 600,000 Rohingya trapped inside the Rakhine state were not allowed to cast vote as they don’t enjoy fundamental political rights (ANFREL, 2020).

Some civil society organizations have openly raised concerns against the irregularities by the election commission. The All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), a student group with a history of resistance to military dictatorship, made large demonstrations in major cities and urged people to boycott the elections as the constitution undermines formation of an “democratic government” (ANFREL, 2020).

Escalating Armed Conflict in Rakhine State

The arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD to office in March 2016 was welcomed with much enthusiasm by the global community as an opportunity to bring about democracy and to transform decade long conflicts. But since then, the peace process with ethnonationalist rebels has stalled, constitutional reform has not taken place, and new conflicts have emerged in different regions.

A new frontline emerged between the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), a Rakhine ethnic armed group fighting for greater political autonomy, and the Myanmar army.

Apart from the persecution and forced displacement of Rohingyas, the Rakhines have also become incedingly alienated and exploited by the central government. Many Rakhines have lost faith in constitutional process that failed to bring about any resolution of long-held political grievances. Consequently, conflict has escalated in Rakhine state and, as a result, around 227,000 people became displaced since late 2018 (Hlaing and Fishbein, 2020). Human Rights groups have accused Myanmar armed forces of carrying out airstrikes against civilians, arbitrary detention, and extortion. According to ACLED (2020), events of shelling and airstrikes by the military on civilian areas have more than doubled in past one year.

Post-Election Prospects for Rohingya Repatriation

Right after the Rohingya influx in August 2018, Bangladesh started to work for an acceptable resolution of this displacement crisis. The Bangladesh government signed an agreement with the Myanmar government on 23 November 2017 to repatriate the forcibly displaced Rohingyas. Following this agreement, the two countries have made two attempts to repatriate the Rohingyas — first on 15 November 2018 and a second one on 22 August 2019. However, both the attempts have failed to initiate any repatriation primarily because of Myanmar’s reluctance to take Rohingyas back. It is necessary to make legal reforms in Myanmar to provide citizenship and other fundamental rights to the Rohingyas to ensure a durable repatriation. However, there is little to expect that the 2020 election will facilitate Rohingya repatriation and resolve increasingly deteriorating conflict in Rakhine state ACLED (2020).

The NLD has come to the power with a populist mandate but the ethnic minorities are left out in the cold by the civilian leadership. Moreover, the frustration and anger caused by the cancelation of polls in several ethnic minority populated regions has the possibility to fuel further violence. Therefore, the continuation of protracted political armed insurgency has the possibility to jeopardize any future repatriation of Rohingyas into Rakhine state.

The Way Forward

The Bangladesh government needs to continue its diplomatic activities to mobilize international pressure on the Myanmar government to ensure security in Rakhine state and restore the legitimate civil and political rights demanded by the Rohingyas. Moreover, the regional and global powers should engage with all the stakeholders in Myanmar more effectively to ensure a peaceful resolution of conflicts and repatriation of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas from Bangladesh.


ACLED. (2020). 2020 Elections in Myanmar: Political Violence and Demonstration Trend. Retrieved 20 November 2020, from

ANFREL. (2020). ANFREL IEOM to the 2020 Myanmar General Elections Interim Report. Retrieved from

Hlaing, K., & Fishbein, E. (2020). In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, Trust in Armed Group Grows as Election Hopes Fade. The New Humanitarian. Retrieved 20 November 2020, from

TRT World. (2020). Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party Wins Majority Seats to Form Myanmar’s Government. Retrieved 20 November 2020, from

USHMM. (2020). Burma’s 2020 Elections and Ongoing Atrocity Risks Facing the Rohingya Population. Retrieved 20 November 2020, from

Win, K., & Quinley III, J. (2020). Myanmar Elections Set to Exacerbate Erasure of the Rohingya Identity. The Diplomat. Retrieved 20 November 2020, from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.