As the closely followed vote count in the United States nears conclusion following a tense couple of days, Myanmar is gearing up for its national election on Sunday. This is the first general poll since former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won in a landslide in 2015.
Myanmar is voting under very different circumstances this year. Back then, the country was celebrated around the world for its seemingly peaceful transition from decades of military-backed rule to civilian leadership, with Nobel laureate Suu Kyi at the helm. It was almost too good to be true.
It was. Five years later, Suu Kyi is a disgraced leader on the world stage, defending her country from genocide charges against Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine State, where the Rohingya crisis happened in 2017, is still a war zone. Myanmar’s military has turned its attention to the Arakan Army, which is fighting for more autonomy for the state’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. The country is also battling a powerful second wave of the coronavirus.
There has been widespread disenfranchisement of Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists in the conflict zone, which has called into question whether Myanmar’s election will be free and fair. Several Rohingya candidates have also been blocked from running, further tarnishing the vote. But Suu Kyi is still expected to lead her party to a sweeping victory, if perhaps not as sweeping at 2015.
VICE News spoke to several young people, including a student, an activist and an entrepreneur, to get their thoughts on the election and what they want from the next administration. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Su Lai Lai Naing (F), 22 year-old student
I haven’t voted before. This is my first experience. I decided to go and vote as I want to be a part of electing the leader of our country. Honestly, they [Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government] didn’t perform as we expected, especially in peacebuilding between ethnic armed groups and the military, and in business sectors. They brought nothing during their term that was really good for young people. I hope there will be effective changes in various sectors like education, health and business. I am excited to participate in my very first experience of voting despite the intense COVID-19 situation.
Eric Aung (M), 19-year-old director of a tech social enterprise
The COVID-19 situation in Myanmar is unstable and there is no guarantee that they will make these elections safe and sound. This is my first time voting. I would say there are significant changes under the NLD compared to 2015. Roads and bridges are a lot better. A lot of foreign direct investment came in. Whether we can trust it not, the infographic and data shown by the NLD is very impressive. I think there were a lot more grants for INGOs and NGOs compared to 2015 and I think that is a good sign. I hope people will be able to vote safely.
Htoo Htet Naing (F), 25-year-old activist
I cannot vote although I wish I could. My right to vote was rejected by the Union Election Commission as my territory is in Kyaukphyu township, Arakan State (known officially as Rakhine State), which was part of the area where voting cannot be held. The current government failed to protect our rights by not doing any proactive preparation for this scenario. I voted in the 2015 general election in my village from Kyaukphyu township. NLD did nothing for Arakan State. It even created more conflict. When the Arakan Army’s campaign increased in 2019, they (the military) committed more oppression. The government shut down the internet access (in conflict-affected townships). They do not have access to the information related to health even during this pandemic period. Their voices on human rights violations and war crimes cannot be heard by the outside world. I will have to give the NLD government’s performance a zero. The government will not be legitimate for us and there will be more conflict.
Shar Yamone (F), 28-year-old youth activist
I am not going to vote this time. I do not really believe in this election as only the big parties have better chances and access for the campaigns and so on. Small parties did not get equal chances. There’s also no candidate that I would like to vote for in our constituency. Not much has improved during the NLD government’s term, including freedom of expression. Many young people in ethnic areas are also oppressed. Only a few changes, like the bus system, can I give the government credit for. I do not believe in this government even though we had high hopes for them. At the same time I am really proud of young candidates from the political parties this time. If they were running from my area, I might support them.
Kyaw Zin Latt, 25-year-old lawyer
I am going to vote in this election. I will vote for NLD. Last time in 2015, I voted for NLD. I want to keep democracy. I don’t want the dictatorship again. I disagreed with some of NLD’s performance. But at the same time I like some of the good things, such as not being under a dictatorship any more. I believe discrimination is less once we have democracy. I know this as I was discriminated against as a Muslim under the dictatorship. We should be able to speak out about what we feel. I would like to see this election be held peacefully.
Naw Wut Yee Le (F), 25-year-old PR executive
I’m going to vote. It is important to keep making changes and keep Myanmar on track to become a true democratic country even amid COVID-19. This is at least what a responsible citizen should do. I think the government is a work in progress. They are cleaning up 60 years of junta messes and trying to bring what they have promised but there are a lot of compromises with the military, which I believe corrupted some of the democratic values that they preached before. That caused a lot of distrust in other ethnic people and people who were strongly supporting the NLD before. The NLD is still failing to recognize the necessity and voices of ethnic people. Rakhine is the proof. When the NLD won the election, people were hoping to remove the military from every possible corner, but the NLD is, I hate to say, collaborating and compromising with military to keep the country in peace.
They (the government) opened a lot of doors for young people, especially going to the roots of education, changing and adapting the school curriculum, but it’s still not good nationwide. Whatever changes they brought are accessible for young people in the big cities but not in poor or rural areas. This year we have other new democratic parties and I’m also excited to see if one of the candidates from the new parties gets elected and make better changes than the NLD, so we have other options in the future not just depending fully on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
Zun Moe Thet Hlaing (M), 23-year-old entrepreneur
I will go and vote in this election. I’ve voted before – back in 2015. Every citizens’ vote is powerful. Each vote is brimming with optimism and could bring a better future and a more democratic era. So we should vote, but follow safety and health regulations. This government has made some progress. Business has been good over the last five years and transportation has been made much easier in some states. But there are still more freedoms required, which is a holdover from past eras. I am hoping there is a more positive future ahead, because young people need chances. Moreover I hope for more gender equality, respect and humanity.
Nur Deen (M), a 24-year-old Rohingya living in Rakhine State
I will not vote in the 2020 general election. We have been denied the right as the government does not consider us citizens of this country. It would be the first time for me if we were allowed to vote. The Rohingyas could vote in 2010. But after violence in 2012, they confiscated the card that was issued to us in the 2010 elections.
Before the 2015 election, I thought we would have opportunity and equal rights like the other ethnic minorities if the NLD won this election. After she (Aung San Suu Kyi) and her party won, she said in a BBC interview that everyone must have equal rights and opportunity. In my view, I want to say she broke not only our hope but that of the international community by not keeping her promises. She denied our ethnicity, and she stood by the military over the Rohingya genocide issue.
Sitt Hmu Naing (M), 22-year-old director at a construction company
I am not going to vote in this election. If I vote, this would be my first time. I have seen a lot of progress under the NLD in some cities and towns outside Yangon. We now have better roads and less power cuts in some areas. I have seen less religious riots under this government too. I don’t see much progress for young people under the NLD, except for the increase in youth participation in politics. Even though I am not voting, I think NLD will win. I hope for a better economy, especially the construction sector. I also hope this election will bring a better future for minorities but I cannot say things for sure.
Via Vice News