Cornell experts comment on Myanmar election

On Sunday, Myanmar will hold a historical parliamentary election where Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will challenge the ruling and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Experts of Southeast Asian politics at Cornell University comment on the significance of these elections.


On Myanmar’s economy:

Thomas Pepinsky, associate professor in Cornell’s department of government, studies emerging market economies in Southeast Asia. He says that the election provides the regime with a veneer of democracy, which the regime needs to attract Western investments.


Pepinsky says:

“The upcoming Myanmar elections represent a key milestone in the country’s recent journey of political and economic liberalization.

“By holding elections in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi will participate, the former military regime gives a veneer of democratic political competition and allows for the controlled expression of mass preferences.

“That said, the key benefit of these elections for the regime is that they keep Western economic partners engaged in trade and investment in this formerly autarkic economy.”


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On Myanmar’s ethnic politics:

While the ballot is significant for its promise of genuine democracy in Myanmar, there is increasing concern that Sunday’s election will not ease anti-Muslim rhetoric in the country. Opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been largely silent over the widespread and increasing violence against Rohingya Muslims. Chiara Formichi, assistant professor in Cornell University’s Department of Asian Studies, researches religion in Southeast Asia. She says that by disengaging from the Rohingya emergency, Aung San Suu Kyi is riding the anti-Muslim tide for political gain, and it might pay off.


Formichi says:

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s disengagement from the Rohingya emergency is evidence of her transformation from an opposition leader under an authoritarian rule to active politician.

“The anti-Rohingya rhetoric has created an anti-Muslim environment, which culminated in Aung San Suu Kyi’s party refusing to list any Muslim candidate.

“Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were removed from electoral lists on the grounds that they are not legal citizens. This escalation, as well as the promulgation of Race and Religion Protection Laws, has been possible through the conflation of ethnic, religious and national identities. This process, started by the British over a century ago via census data collection practices, has continued under the junta with the goal of retaining a narrow definition of Myanmar citizenship as close to ‘Burman’ as possible.

“In the current climate, where Ma Ba Tha and other extremist Buddhist groups hold political sway, speaking in favor of the Rohingya would surely cause negative setbacks to the National League of Democracy. It is on these same grounds that the league filed no Muslim candidate.

“The alignment of NLD’s priorities with those of the USDP and Ma Ba Tha will affect the electoral outcome, as voters will question what the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi stand for. Given Suu Kyi’s record as an activist for freedom and democracy in Myanmar, some voters might ask why she is not promoting the same standards in the treatment of Rohingya Muslims.”


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