What Next After Myanmar's Elections?

Briefing Note

What Next After Myanmar's Elections?

Anthony Measures

26 Nov 2015

Myanmar's general election took place on 8 November 2015, amid concerns over the status of ethnic and religious minorities.

On 8 November 2015, Myanmar held its first general election since full military rule came to an end in 2011. That followed the results of the 2010 election, when Myanmar's military made way for a nominally civilian government, with former Prime Minister Thein Sein sworn in as President.

The campaign, which was monitored closely, saw little in the way of disturbances. Nevertheless, the result is crucial for its impact on the Rohingya Muslim community, the influence of Buddhist nationalist groups, and the resolution of ethnic tensions in Shan and Kachin states.

The result is crucial for its impact on the Rohingya community.

The final election result was announced by the Union Election Commission on 20 November 2015, when the last remaining seats of the 1,171 being contested were declared. On a nationwide basis the National League for Democracy (NLD) party took 887 of these seats, or 77 per cent of the vote. In the lower house, Pyithu Hluttaw, the NLD took 255, or 78 per cent of the 327 elected seats, and in the upper house, Amyotha Hluttaw, the NLD won 135 seats, or 80 per cent of the 168 elected seats.

Taking into account the 25 per cent of seats allocated to the military, plus seven vacant seats in the lower house, the NLD will hold 390 seats, or 59 per cent of all seats in the combined houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, giving the party an absolute majority. The new parliament is due to convene in late January 2016, and in February 2016 each house, and the military, vote to select a candidate for president.

Myanmar is known for its embedded religious traditions, having long been identified with the Buddhist faith, with 75 per cent of the population recorded as Buddhist. The Myanmar Constitution and election laws provide a number of categories of eligibility to vote, including holding full citizenship, associate citizenship, or naturalised citizenship, but exclude members of religious orders, or foreigners.

It is the laws on citizenship that have been used to exclude much of the Rohingya Muslim community, many of whom reside in camps in Rakhine State, following violent clashes in 2012 with Buddhist nationalist groups. Myanmar recognises 135 ethnic minorities, but does not recognise the citizenship of the Rohingya. The  UN estimates that in Rakhine State some 416,600 people are affected by conflict or inter-communal violence.

Nearly half a million Rohingya Muslims are displaced by conflict.

The Rohingya community was able to participate in the 2010 elections, and a number of Rohingya members of parliament were elected. However, the decision by President Thein Sein to invalidate the temporary registration certificates (white cards), which were held by over a half a million Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, in February 2015, excluded the community from the 2015 elections. When other exclusions are taken into account, including 10,000 people of Chinese and Indian origin, up to one million previously eligible individuals were estimated to be prevented from voting in a country of around 52 million people.

On 28 October 2015, Yanghee Lee, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, expressed her concerns to a UN General Assembly Committee about the election campaign. In her report, Yanghee noted the disqualification of a reported 61 candidates, the majority of whom were Muslim, on grounds of their citizenship status. Lee visited Myanmar twice in 2015, including in March 2015 when she came under verbal attack from the Buddhist nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu for speaking about the Rohingya.

Buddhist nationalist parties, including the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) formed in 2013, which is loosely affiliated to the 969 movement headed by Wirathu, are seen as a new political force. They had no direct candidates in the election, but appeared to be influential over other political parties, including the ruling USDP, in their campaign to 'protect' Buddhism.

Buddhist nationalist parties did not run candidates, but influenced other parties. 

Monitors followed what many regard as the promotion of anti-Muslim sentiment in the run up to the election by the Ma Ba Tha, which claims to have 10 million supporters. Earlier in 2015, the Union Election Commission invited the Carter Center to observe the 2015 general elections. Though finding that rallies had been peaceful, the Center heard concerns from parties and community members about the potentially disruptive use of nationalist and religious rhetoric during campaigning, particularly from the Ma Ba Tha. The UN also expressed its concerns over the "increasing influence of religious nationalists movements" in the political process, including through statements by the Ma Ba Tha.

The Ma Ba Tha's election campaign culminated in a rally in Yangon on 4 October, attended by 20,000 people, celebrating the passage of four new laws in July 2015. The laws banned interfaith marriages, prohibited Buddhist women (but not men) from changing their religion, restricted the number of children women from designated groups can bear, and outlawed polygamy. The Ma Ba Tha initiated all of these laws.

There had been high anticipation about how Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party would fare in the election, after the party boycotted the 2010 election over Suu Kyi's house arrest. The party focused its election campaign on constitutional reform and establishing the rule of law. During campaigning, Suu Kyi urged the government to take action against those who were illegally using religion in the political campaign. The abuse of religion for political purposes is prohibited under the 2008 constitution, and Myanmar's election laws forbid calling for votes on religious grounds.

The world is watching as Myanmar attempts to continue its transitional democratic progression, which has been accompanied by a rise in intercommunal tensions. The exclusion of communities such as the Rohingya, and the actions of groups like the Ma Ba Tha in this election seem likely to exacerbate that trend.

Election Process
  • In the last full election in 2010, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) took almost 77 per cent of the vote.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi was first elected in a by-election in 2012, following her National League for Democracy's (NLD) boycott of the 2010 election.
  • There were 92 registered political parties in the 2015 election, with a total of 1,171 representatives elected to national, state and regional assemblies.
  • The two-tier Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu) has 664 seats, consisting of the 224-seat House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw), and the 440-seat House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw).
  • Seventy-five per cent of seats in both houses are filled via elected single-member constituencies, and 25 per cent are appointed by the military for a five-year term.
  • The president will be elected by both houses of the Assembly of the Union.

This article was originally published on 4 November 2015. It was updated on 26 November 2015.


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