As Myanmar prepares to vote, a COVID-19 outbreak is exposing the country's meager progress

David Pierson, ANDREW NACHEMSON
People wearing facemasks amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus walk to a bus stop in Yangon on March 24, 2020. - Myanmar confirmed its first cases of of the deadly novel coronavirus late March 23 after weeks of increasing scepticism over the under-developed southeast Asian nation's claims to be free of the disease. (Photo by Ye Aung THU / AFP) (Photo by YE AUNG THU/AFP via Getty Images)
People wearing facemasks walk to a bus stop in Yangon, Myanmar, in March. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP via Getty Images)

The last time Myanmar held elections in 2015, an unbridled optimism rose from decades of isolation and military rule to deliver a landslide victory to a civilian party led by human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

But as people prepare to go to the polls on Nov. 8 for only the second time since a military junta relinquished its monopoly on power, elation has ebbed to disappointment and uncertainty amid a growing coronavirus outbreak that’s exposed the slow rate of progress in the still developing nation.

Restrictions on campaigning, media coverage and election observing in the name of safety have raised doubts about a fair election. For many, the early promise of Suu Kyi's political ascent has been betrayed by a government that has failed to bring prosperity and often overlooks minorities.

The country’s election commission, criticized for a lack of independence, announced last week it would cancel voting in parts of the country where ethnic minority populations have shunned Suu Kyi's ruling National League for Democracy party — disenfranchising 1.6 million people and inflaming tensions in places long marred by violence.

"It is not going to be free and fair,” Wahkushee Tenner, an ethnic Karen activist, said of the election. “This country's constitution is against peace building and democracy and anything going through it won’t make any big difference for our ethnic people."

A souring economy, battered by the effects of the global pandemic and years of uneven development, has pushed millions to the brink of poverty and hunger. Foreign investment has stagnated as the country’s international reputation has been badly tarnished by the violent repression of the Rohingya Muslim minority at the hands of the military and police.

Suu Kyi’s complicity in the violence against the Rohingya — hundreds of thousands who are refugees in Bangladesh — and her fall from grace as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate epitomizes the way outside observers and Western governments misunderstood the nation's ethnic and religious animosities and how Myanmar would change with free elections.

“2015 was a time of irrational optimism,” said historian Thant Myint-U, author of “The Hidden History of Burma.” “Not only had the country been wracked by seven decades of internal armed conflicts, but several new and very well-armed insurgencies had appeared. . . It was a country that had been isolated since the 1960s and then had come under crushing Western sanctions, a country whose education system had been decimated and ethno-nationalism had replaced the progressive agendas of the past. There was never going to be a fairy tale ending any time soon.”

The coronavirus has further complicated the nation's turbulent path toward democracy. Over the summer, Myanmar looked to be as fortunate as other developing countries, including Cambodia and Vietnam, in containing the virus.

But in the third week of August, the first local transmission in months was reported in the war-torn western state of Rakhine, leading to an explosion of cases that quickly spread to Yangon, the former capital and Myanmar’s largest city.

Myanmar has now recorded more than 41,000 cases and 1,000 deaths, the third-most fatalities in Southeast Asia. While minuscule compared to countries like the United States, the numbers were enough to strain Myanmar’s healthcare system, which was woefully unprepared after years of neglect.

Health authorities scrambled to convert sports facilities, monasteries, schools, and other public buildings into hospitals as a surge in new cases threatened to exceed Yangon’s capacity for patients.

There have been multiple reports of quarantined patients subjected to substandard conditions without access to bathrooms, running water or sanitary pads. Some have also complained about being forced to share a room with COVID-19 patients while awaiting test results.

Months of limited testing capacity make it difficult to gauge the true severity of the outbreak.

In August, the country was only processing around 2,000 samples per day, which increased to roughly 5,000 per day in September. Testing only started regularly surpassing 10,000 per day in October after Myanmar acquired some 200,000 test kits from South Korea. At one point, a staggering 15% to 20% of COVID-19 tests were coming back positive — one of the highest rates in the world.

Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to lead her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory Nov. 8.
Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to lead her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory Nov. 8. (Aung Shine Oo / Associated Press)

Suu Kyi rebuffed calls from opposition parties to postpone the elections because of the outbreak.

“I want our citizens to understand that voting in the general elections is their duty; in the same way, abiding by the health rules and regulations to protect themselves of COVID-19 is also their duty as citizens,” she said in a national address earlier this month.

The NLD is expected to win another landslide with the backing of the country’s majority Buddhist Bamar, who comprise more than two-thirds of Myanmar’s 54 million people and dominate the ranks of the nation’s powerful armed forces, the Tatmadaw.

Myanmar’s military is guaranteed a quarter of parliamentary seats under the country’s constitution, one of the greatest impediments to reform and genuine civilian leadership. The arrangement makes it impossible for the opposition to win the required support of three-quarters of parliament to change the country’s charter.

The Tatmadaw are expected to again wield massive influence over the country’s budget, its largest corporations, and the harsh domestic security policy that led to accusations of genocide against the Rohingya, resulting in at least 10,000 dead.

The NLD promised to press for constitutional changes in 2015, but waited until last year to begin discussing amendments — a move that’s resonating with voters.

Ingyin Moe, a 24-year-old market researcher in Yangon, said she felt particularly obligated to vote for the NLD to help overcome the military’s hold on parliament. But she’s wary of going to a polling station and contracting COVID-19.

“If the stations obey the [health ministry] rules then I will go and vote. If not, I’m not sure,” she said.

A lockdown in Yangon has prevented political parties from holding campaign events even as city has been awash in red NLD flags with its white star and yellow peacock hanging from balconies.

Outside Yangon, overzealous supporters of both the NLD and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party have gathered by the hundreds or thousands — sometimes side by side — resulting in violent clashes. In one incident a mob of more than 100 USDP supporters allegedly trashed the home of an NLD party member following a confrontation.

The battles between those political powers have largely marginalized ethnic minority parties.

Htoo Htet Naing, an ethnic Rakhine activist who is from a village in Kyaukphyu Township where voting was canceled, said the elections weren’t legitimate because they excluded so many ethnic territories. If anything, she said, the move will heighten tensions and cause more bloodshed.

“Our rights were taken away at almost the last minute,” Htoo Htet Naing said. “This government kills our people’s hope for reform and democracy.”

The cancellations, which were ordered in parts of Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin, Mon and Shan states, were explained by the election commission as necessary because of unrest in the areas.

Rakhine was the most severely impacted, with voting either completely or partially canceled in 13 out of the state's 17 townships. The NLD won three of the four unaffected townships in 2015, while losing the state as a whole, fueling claims of political motivation.

Moreover, Htoo Htet Naing said many of the townships and villages barred from voting next month had no instances of fighting.

“There was not a single gunshot or community conflict in my village tract,” she said. “It’s totally not fair.”

Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Nachemson from Yangon.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.