The hope then was that the NLD and its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader would use their newly acquired power to expand democracy and human rights in Myanmar, a nation of 57 million also known as Burma. So it is a dismal verdict on what has happened in the country that the new general elections scheduled for Nov. 8, the first since 2015, will be even less free and fair than that first landmark vote.
The constitutional strictures granting the military a quarter of parliament remain in place. So does the ban on voting by most Rohingya, to whom the government has denied citizenship; some 1 million members of that ethnic group remain exiled in Bangladesh after being driven out of the country three years ago in a bloody ethnic-cleansing campaign. Other ethnic minority groups will also be prevented from voting, ostensibly because of ongoing military campaigns. In total, voting has been canceled in all or parts of at least 56 townships, disenfranchising 1.5 million people, according to Human Rights Watch.
Political parties challenging the NLD have less access to media than they did five years ago. While the ruling party is free to promote itself on state media, competitors had only one chance to broadcast their appeals, and those were subject to approval by the national election commission. At least four parties canceled their broadcasts because they were not allowed to make basic arguments, such as criticizing the NLD’s one-party rule or arguing that workers did not earn sufficient income. Such censorship did not take place in 2015.
Some of the anti-democratic strictures, such as the pre-allocation of parliamentary seats, were written into the constitution by the military and cannot be changed without its support. Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi, who in practice runs the government, has made almost no effort to bring about liberal change. On the contrary, she backed the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya and defended it in international forums. Having courted Western governments and extolled democracy when she was a disempowered opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has largely turned her back on both.
Myanmar’s political regression has been a particular blow to the United States, which punished the previous military regime with heavy sanctions and worked for years to encourage a democratic opening. A democratic Myanmar would be a natural U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, while China reaps the benefit of a renewed autocracy. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has done almost nothing to discourage the backsliding. Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pledged to revive U.S. support for democracy around the world; if he is elected president, applying that policy to Myanmar should be a priority.