The upcoming by-elections in Myanmar will be closely watched, both by people inside the country and by the international community. The United States and many other nations that have sanctions on Myanmar are viewing the by-elections as a critical test of whether the reforms put into place over the past year and a half have legs, and whether the government is truly willing to allow the National League for Democracy (NLD) to play a major role, since it is likely that Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD candidates are going to win a sizable majority, if not almost all, of the contested by-election seats. Inside Myanmar, the by-elections are also being viewed by some skeptics of the reform process as the critical sign of the government’s seriousness , since previous glimmers of changes, like in the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, never got so far as to hold an election, and were snuffed out long before.
There have already been many reports, with real credibility, of irregularities in the election before the voting day. Although the Myanmar government has invited Asian and Western observers to come monitor the elections, the NLD has been denied the chance to hold rallies in certain large stadiums, its candidates have reportedly been attacked and harassed, and the military’s favored party has been handing out all kinds of incentives to win votes in many of the contested areas. Suu Kyi herself, these days reluctant to criticize the government, has repeatedly expressed frustration at how the NLD is being treated in the run-up to the vote.
Still, I do not think that on election day there will be massive fraud and irregularities, of the kind one sees in places like Syria or Russia. For one, this election is only for a small portion of seats, and the government can allow the vote to proceed relatively fairly and still ensure the military’s favored party dominates parliament. By holding a relatively free vote on election day, when monitors are there and the world is watching, the government can gain the respect, greater aid, and possible ending of sanctions that it wants. And the Myanmar government, even back under complete military rule in 1990, has always seemed to regard election day as more untouchable, as compared to rigging and thuggery before the vote. Back in 1990, after putting Suu Kyi under house arrest and taking all sorts of measures to try and slant the vote, the regime actually did allow election day to proceed relatively fairly. And then —as will happen now— the NLD triumphed. But now, it is important to remember: it will only be a small triumph, no matter how much the world praises election day.