Aspiring politician U Hnin Htun Toe still recalls the elation of being able to vote in the 2015 election that ended 50 years of military rule in Myanmar, but Sunday’s poll will be marred by bitter disappointment.
Because of fighting in his native Rakhine state, elections have been cancelled by the election commission, stopping his ethnic Rakhine political party from running for office. Along with similar cancellations in other conflict-ridden areas of Myanmar, it means that nearly 1.5m people will be unable to vote.
The decision – which critics say may be politically motivated – disproportionately affects the Muslim Rohingya community, as well as other ethnic minorities who once saw civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling National League of Democracy party (NLD) as natural allies.
Ms Suu Kyi, 75, is expected to sweep back into power. But five years after her first pivotal electoral victory, hopes among the country’s ethnic minorities and the international community that her government would herald a new era of peace and democracy have been reduced to a flicker.
“It’s so ugly that we lost our vote in the era of Aung San Suu Kyi who also proclaims democracy,” said U Hnin Htun Toe. “She was more like a dictator. She is just a story teller. She said she will work for the development of our state. But nothing happened. We have no hope.”
Once revered by the West as a pro-democracy heroine for enduring almost 15 years of detention to stand against the ruthless army generals who had ruled Myanmar for decades, Aung San Suu Kyi’s star quickly faded when she was accused of failing to stop a horrific military purge of the Rohingya in 2017.
More than 700,000 Rohingya living in Rakhine were forced to flee an ethnic cleansing campaign. Many who remained have been forced into squalid camps with severe curbs on movement, education and healthcare, in conditions described by Human Rights Watch as amounting to apartheid.
“We suffered more under her administration. She never worked for Rakhine state. She never kept her 2015 election promise. I feel like we have been under lockdown for five years since Aung San Suu Kyi took power,” said U Thein Zan, a charity worker from Min Pyar.
Richard Horsey, a political analyst based in Myanmar’s capital, Yangon, predicted Sunday’s poll would be defined in the West as “fundamentally flawed” over Rohingya disenfranchisement. It would also further polarise the country between minorities in border regions and the Bamar majority who supported the NLD.
“That speaks to a more turbulent and potentially violent next few years unfortunately in those border areas,” he said.
Conflict has already intensified in the run-up to the poll between the military and the Rakhine-based insurgent group, the Arakan Army.
Aung San Suu Kyi enters the election not only under the shadow of spiralling ethnic violence, but also struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic which has amplified an economic crisis. Her government stands accused of squeezing press freedoms and harassing critics.
Mr Horsey said that Western nations, in particular Britain, had harboured unrealistic expectations of the Nobel peace prize winner when she first took power.
“I think what people missed was that elections and democracy were not the panacea for all of Myanmar’s deeply rooted problems,” he said.
“The fairytale was that you have a good versus evil struggle, a morality tale playing out and that once you get Aung San Suu Kyi in power – a wise leader with democracy – that all of the other problems of the country were problems of military rule, and that was never the case,” he said.
Ms Suu Kyi’s idea of democratisation prioritised getting the military out of politics rather than the western concept of liberal freedoms, said Mr Horsey.
But her supporters also point to the army’s continued grip on power as a major reason for her limited record on reform. The constitution awards one quarter of parliamentary seats to the military.
About 38 million people will be eligible to cast their ballot, including 5 million young, first-time voters, and the NLD is predicted to conquer the heartlands.
“People support her because they think it’s her birthright to lead the country and they love her because of her years in opposition to military rule. It’s very personal, it’s not about policies and that makes it harder to dent,” said Mr Horsey.
Dr Kyaw Win, a dentist from Yangon, said he believed she was the “only person who can bring luck to our country.”
He added: “Five years is not enough to change this fragile country, so we need to give her a chance for at least 10 years. She rules the country with love.”
The NLD’s spokesman, Dr Myo Nyunt, said the party’s post-election goals were to change the constitution, end ethnic conflict, and bring the military under the government’s command.
“We are sure that we can do better in the coming five years. We will focus more on the development of ethnic regions and to end the civil war,” he said.
“Rakhine’s problem is the country’s problem. To give voting back to the Rakhine people who lost their vote, we need to solve the problem in Rakhine state without weapons.”
Additional reporting by Nandi Theint in Yangon
Reviled in the West but revered at home, Aung San Suu Kyi cruising to victory in Myanmar elections The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Telegraph.