Yangon, Myanmar – Polls have opened in Myanmar’s general elections, the only second democratic vote in the Southeast Asian country since the end of 50 years of military rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) widely expected to be re-elected.
Sunday’s vote comes amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Myanmar, which has recorded more than 60,000 infections and 1,390 deaths since mid-August.
Opposition parties had called for an election delay over the surge in coronavirus cases, but the governing NLD and the Union Election Commission insisted on forging ahead. Elderly voters were allowed to cast ballots in advance while the government promised to provide adequate personal protective equipment for poll workers and to ensure social distancing at every polling station.
In South Okkalapa township in eastern Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, hundreds of voters – wearing masks, face shields and gloves – lined up outside a polling booth at dawn to cast their ballots.
Voters in the area were choosing between the NLD’s Thet Naing Soe and prominent democracy activist Ko Ko Gyi, who has criticised the governing party for failing to amend the army-drafted constitution, which gives the military 25 percent of seats in parliament.
South Okkalapa resident Aung Myo said he voted for Suu Kyi’s NLD. “She is very strong, strong for the truth and our country,” he told Al Jazeera.
Su Moe Thant, a 23-year-old student, said she was “excited” to cast her ballot.
“I have some friends who don’t want to vote they don’t like the current political system and don’t want to choose and go for no vote. I really don’t like that, it’s a democracy you can choose whatever you want. You can vote independent but it’s important to vote,” she said.
…voters clearly determined to vote despite potential health risks & not taking this right for granted – it’s only second general election since end of military rule in 2011. Generally serious mood in the queue to vote, then excited selfie-taking after. Tea shops also bustling.
— Richard Horsey (@rshorsey) November 8, 2020
More than 37 million people were eligible to vote in the election to choose members for the upper and lower houses in an election the Human Rights Watch has decried as “fundamentally flawed”. The United States-based group last month denounced the exclusion of voters from the ethnic Rohingya minority, the criminal prosecution of government critics, as well as unequal party access to state media.
Polls were also cancelled in ethnic minority areas, with the elections commission citing concerns over security amid fighting between the military and ethnic rebel groups. Worst-affected is Rakhine state, where the military is battling the Arakan Army, a popular rebel group seeking greater autonomy for the Rakhine people.
The cancellation of the vote tilts the electoral field decisively in the NLD’s favour in Rakhine, a state where it is arguably the least popular and analysts have warned that the conflict there may intensify in the wake of the election.
The western state is also home to the persecuted Rohingya minority, who Myanmar views as immigrants from Bangladesh and were barred from registering to vote. More than 730,000 others from the ethnic group fled Myanmar for Bangladesh in the wake of a brutal military crackdown in 2017, and Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said on Friday that he hoped Sunday’s vote would allow for refugee returns in “safety and dignity”.
Guterres also renewed his appeal for a “ceasefire across the country to allow all to focus on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic” and said he remained “concerned about armed conflict in many areas of Myanmar, especially the intensifying clashes in Rakhine and Chin states”.
For her part, Suu Kyi, in her final campaign speech on Thursday, promised to strengthen democracy if re-elected.
Acknowledging grievances over the organisation of the vote, she said the “the important thing is to solve these problems by peaceful means within the boundaries of the laws,” and urged voters to remain calm and maintain “stability”.
“We must create our own future,” she added.
Analysts are predicting a landslide win for the NLD, but Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing refused to commit to honouring the results of Sunday’s election, criticising “widespread violation of the laws and procedures of the pre-voting process”.
“In 2015, I was asked in an interview. I said if the commission announced that the election was free and fair, we would just accept the result. But now, we are in a situation where we have to be cautious,” he said on Tuesday, referring to the election that brought the NLD to power five years ago.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is the NLD’s main opponent in Sunday’s election.