War-Torn Myanmar Plans to Hold Elections. Will They Matter?

In Brief

War-Torn Myanmar Plans to Hold Elections. Will They Matter?

The two-year-old military junta in Myanmar wants to hold elections this year to legitimize its rule, but steady losses in its spreading civil war have put its own existence in peril and could make a vote nearly impossible.

In the two years since Myanmar’s armed forces launched a coup, the country has descended into a byzantine civil war. While the military controls some territory, most of the country is outside of central government authority. Its opponents—long-established ethnic armed organizations and newer forces that emerged after the coup—have made major gains. Now, the junta says it is planning elections this year, probably hoping to use them to create a veneer of legitimacy. But given the almost surely stage-managed nature of these elections—and whether they can happen at all amid such violence—any vote will prove a challenging task.

Myanmar has suggested it will hold elections later in the year. Do they matter?

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The junta has repeatedly stated that it plans to hold elections in 2023. However, in February, it ordered a six-month extension to the country’s state of emergency, which allows it to legally maintain its grip in areas it controls and means elections cannot be held until late fall. However, the regime seems to think that, by holding elections, even clearly stage-managed ones, it could shed its pariah status and win more overt acceptance from important regional neighbors such as India, Thailand, and possibly the Philippines.

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Such elections will almost surely be unfree. In January, the junta created a new law that gives it broad latitude to ban virtually any opposition party. The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has already been decimated by the jailing of hundreds if not thousands of its members, including its leader, seventy-seven-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD has said it will not try to register for elections under the new law. Yet even so, if the junta manages to hold elections, it may be right that any vote will be enough to convince more neighbors to openly embrace it.

Is there any potential for these elections to move Myanmar toward reconciliation and democratic restoration?

Myanmar soldiers wearing flower garlands as well as blue and white–camouflage fatigues and masks march in formation
Soldiers march in formation during a military parade in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw. U Aung/Xinhua/Getty Images

No—though that is not the point of the junta’s move. The army, while discussing elections, is simultaneously launching one of the most brutal crackdowns on civilians of this century. Former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel has called the junta “the worst regime in Southeast Asia since the Khmer Rouge.”

Yet, if the army is able to pull off elections with even token opposition parties, which it can recruit with money from politicians dissatisfied with the NLD, countries in the region could use this weak electoral gesture to openly foster greater rapprochement with Naypyidaw. Undemocratic states Thailand and Vietnam, as well as India, South Korea, and perhaps some other democracies, could consider that option. (A few states, including China and Russia, already have normalized ties with the Myanmar junta.) Some, though not all, of Myanmar’s neighbors are looking for any positive signs out of the country. They desire its natural resources and are reluctant to set the precedent of any state being punished for rights abuses (India, Thailand, and Vietnam themselves have major rights challenges), and feel sanctions have been useless in pressuring Naypyidaw.

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Can the elections even be held in the current climate of violence and state collapse?

It promises to be a precarious exercise. If it eventually holds the vote, the military will focus on areas it controls, mostly the central ethnic Burman heartlands. It will hope to have enough peaceful voting sites and enough votes tallied to create credibility. But in all likelihood, some Myanmar citizens, even in central Myanmar, will refuse to vote.

A map of Myanmar showing that the junta has limited control over the country

More on:

Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Myanmar

Wars and Conflict

Elections and Voting

Southeast Asia

Voting sites will also be obvious targets for attacks by the groups fighting the military, from the new People’s Defense Forces that emerged after the coup to powerful and older ethnic armed organizations in ethnic minority borderlands. Combined, these anti-junta fighters now control large portions of the country—a group of experts from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar who studied the conflict concluded that the junta has solid control of only 17 percent [PDF] of Myanmar—and can threaten guerilla attacks anywhere. Most likely, the junta will not even try to put polling places in areas of the north, east, and west under control of anti-junta forces, which may further delegitimize the elections—perhaps so much so that even Myanmar’s neighbors cannot accept restoring formal ties to Naypyidaw.

Could government forces lose the civil war, and if so, what might replace them?

Once unthinkable, given the military’s size and its pipeline of weapons from Russia and other suppliers, anti-junta forces have gained surprising victories amid the overall state collapse occurring as they wage what is currently deadliest conflict outside of Ukraine. The military has suffered widespread defections, guerillas have gained territory and are getting training from allies in the armed ethnic organizations, and the army has no clear plan for winning back the population and large areas of land. The government-in-exile, the National Unity Government (NUG), is gaining credibility among democracies, including the United States. The NUG and the armed resistance are working on coordination, and the military faces constant attacks even in the central heartlands. Ultimately, despite the junta’s resolve and arms, this attrition could lead to a weakened army forced to make massive concessions, if not to give up entirely.

If the junta eventually fell, Myanmar’s democrats would need to hold real elections quickly and, most importantly, create a truly federal state—something Suu Kyi had little appetite for. In such an ethnically diverse country, federalism, with major powers given to each state so that many ethnic groups could be better represented, is the only possible path toward sustainable democracy.

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