YANGON: Myanmar votes on Sunday in an election seen as a referendum on a fledgling democratic government whose reputation collapsed overseas amid allegations of genocide but which remains popular at home.
Leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is widely expected to win a second term in the second general election since the end of decades of military-backed rule.
She is backed by a population that still largely sees her as a heroine of democracy, though her win will likely be by a lesser margin than the landslide victory that propelled her to power in 2015.
More than 37 million people are registered to vote but fears over the spread of COVID-19 may dampen turnout. Polls have also been cancelled in areas affected by insurgencies, which Human Rights Watch said meant 1.5 million people will be unable to cast their votes.
The elections commission has said the elections had to be cancelled for safety reasons, because of ongoing insurgencies. The commission has also said it is doing the best it can to make sure elections are free and fair.
Suu Kyi’s defenders say critics are unrealistic to expect rapid change in the country after half a century of military rule and are hampering efforts to secure gradual progress.
The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said on Friday he hoped “peaceful, orderly and credible elections” could “help pave the way for refugee returns in safety and dignity”. This referred to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya in camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
More than 730,000 Rohingya, members of a persecuted Muslim minority, fled the country following a 2017 military crackdown that the United Nations has said was executed with genocidal intent. Myanmar says it was carrying out legitimate operations against militants who attacked police posts.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state, confined to camps and villages and mostly denied citizenship, will not be allowed to vote, alongside more than a million other people in areas where polls have been cancelled due to ethnic insurgencies.
Suu Kyi, the 75-year-old Nobel Laureate still known to many as “Mother Suu”, remains overwhelmingly popular in Myanmar, where a recent survey by local watchdog found 79% of people considered her the most trusted figure in the country.
But enthusiasm is weaker in remote regions dominated by ethnic minorities, many of who feel sidelined by the Buddist Bamar majority central government.
Doi Bu, vice-chair of the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), one of several new ethnic parties that have resulted from mergers, said the government had failed to bring change to the region in part because it was cowed by the army.
“Although five years is not long, the NLD didn’t do anything necessary, starting with (amending) the constitution,” she said.
The army retains significant powers under the constitution, including holding a quarter of seats in parliament and a veto on changes to the charter.
Tensions between the government and the military have been running high, with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing saying in a rare interview last week the administration had made “unacceptable mistakes” in the lead-up to the polls.
He said opposition parties had complained about irregularities, including voter lists that were incomplete and riddled with errors. The president’s office said his remarks risked creating fear and unrest days away from the vote.
Smaller parties also say restrictions on campaigning due to COVID-19 have made it harder for them to spread their message.
Myint Myint Aye, a street vendor in the commercial capital of Yangon, said the curbs meant she was “not aware” of most of the more than 90 political parties competing in the polls.
“Even though we know more new parties are joining this election, we don’t know about them. Our choices are limited due to COVID-19.”