Voters in Myanmar will cast their ballots Sunday in the country's second general election since the military ceded absolute power in 2011.
While the result appears predictable — analysts believe Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy will win again — the elections could further exacerbate the country's ethnic tensions due to the disenfranchisement of many minorities. The military establishment continues to wield significant political power. And COVID-19 may dampen voter turnout.
"It's almost a foregone conclusion that the NLD will get back in for a variety of reasons, most of which is Aung San Suu Kyi's undiminished domestic popularity," says David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial hub and capital.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate and former political prisoner who spent nearly two decades in jail or under house arrest by the military, remains a beloved figure.
"There is almost an inherently magical connection between her and many voters," says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "People can't even imagine not voting for her."
But her party's margin of victory may not be as large it was as five years ago — in part because there are few signs of tangible progress in improving people's livelihoods in one of Asia's poorest countries or in ending armed conflict with ethnic minority groups.
"Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were elected in a landslide in 2015, including with ethnic votes, because it was expected that they would represent everybody," says Robertson. "Increasingly, what we're seeing is she is primarily interested just in the ethnic Burmans who comprise 65% of the voters."
It's a majority voting bloc in a country of some 53 million, one for whom the ideas of ethnicity and race are especially important in terms of who belongs and who doesn't.
It helps explain the overwhelming public acceptance — and even approval — of the Myanmar military's brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority Rohingya in Rakhine state in 2017. More than 750,000 Rohingya fled to safety in neighboring Bangladesh, alleging they and their families had been subjected to rape, murder and torture. A 2018 United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding mission reported that 10,000 deaths would be a "conservative estimate."
Myanmar was accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Late last year, Suu Kyi personally led the country's defense team.
"She stood up for nation, race and religion — not the army, but for race and religion, at The Hague," says Mary Callahan, a Yangon-based analyst and associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington.
Suu Kyi's decision to go to The Hague proved wildly popular among Myanmar's Buddhist Burman majority. Analysts say it helped bolster her standing ahead of this year's election.
And despite the world's condemnation of Myanmar for its treatment of the Rohingya, the government remains defiant. It is not allowing the vast majority of Rohingya — those who fled and those who remain — to vote in the election.
"They weren't allowed to vote in the last election in 2015, either," says Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey, the author of a recent International Crisis Group report on the upcoming election. "Before that, they have voted in every post-independence election since the 1940s. So that group has been disenfranchised. And that's part of the systematic denial of citizenship."
Last month, Myanmar's election commission also announced it would cancel voting in several conflict areas, disenfranchising more than 1.5 million voters, most of them from ethnic minorities in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Chin states, says Robertson.
The military is "prosecuting a war against certain ethnic groups and insurgencies and they are trying to pressure them," says Robertson. "And one of the ways they're going to do it is also by denying elections in some of those areas."
The army continues to loom large in Myanmar politics.
"When the military decided unilaterally to step back from full power, it drafted a constitution which sets aside 25% of the seats in parliament, plus control of the three security ministries, for itself," says Horsey. "So this constitution and these elections will be for hybrid governments. The military will still have significant political power."
There are also worries about what might happen if ethnic parties have a poor showing in the vote, says Callahan. While some may continue to participate in the political process, she says, others may "give up on it all and just decide armed resistance is the only answer, especially for young people who will wonder why they've been bothering with a system that really doesn't serve them at all."
In addition, the election comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Myanmar late but hard, starting in September. With nearly 57,000 confirmed cases and 1,330 deaths, Myanmar is now the worst-affected country in mainland Southeast Asia. The virus has strained the country's rudimentary health care system and forced widespread lockdowns, including in Yangon.
While some opposition parties suggested the election could be delayed until the COVID-19 situation improved, Suu Kyi's government has pressed ahead and says it has taken precautions to try to ensure voters' safety — by providing personal protection equipment to voters, polling staff and volunteers, and more voting stations to try to reduce overcrowding. But analysts believe some people may stay at home simply out of fear.
Despite the challenges, they say it's important that elections are happening — and for the second time.
"The fact that Myanmar shifted from decades of military dictatorship to an electoral system of deciding government is fantastic," says Horsey. "And it's something we would have had difficulty to imagine even 10 years ago."
But it's an election, he warns, that could easily exacerbate existing tensions between the Burman Buddhist majority and ethnic minorities and do little to address economic inequality in one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations.