A poster supporting Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is seen in a shop in Yangon, Myanmar, January 23, 2020. (Photo: Ann Wang, Reuters)

Covid-19 in Myanmar: From Social Distancing to Political Distancing?

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The ongoing fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in Myanmar means that social distancing measures will continue indefinitely. This means that political distancing in the run-up to upcoming polls might rear its head.

Myanmar is still grappling with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and finding ways to ameliorate its economic and social impacts. But a new, but no less serious, challenge to Myanmar and its democratisation process is around the corner: how to conduct the general elections due by November 2020.

The Union Election Commission of Myanmar (UEC) – the ultimate authority in electoral matters – has said that the polls will take place.  Holding the elections in November this year will be in accordance with tradition. The country’s past two elections in 2010 and 2015 were held in November. As the term of the present parliament ends on 31 January 2021, the members of the next parliament must be elected before that date. Directly nominated by the Myanmar president, the UEC is responsible for holding the elections as much as possible on time and in a free and fair manner.

The coming polls are crucial for Myanmar’s democratisation process, to its transition from military dictatorship in the 1990s and 2000s to “partial” electoral democracy since 2010. It goes without saying that the transition may only continue when elections are regular, free, and fair. 

There is not much time left before the 2020 elections, if they are indeed to be held in November. And present circumstances mean that the campaign must get underway with as little human-to-human interaction as possible. Unfortunately, social distancing between people will also mean political distancing between parties and voters. 

Movement restrictions across Myanmar due to Covid-19 are still in place, without an end in sight. Even if some of those restrictions, especially those affecting businesses and workplaces, are gradually lifted, social distancing will be the new normal for several months to come. The elections are thus likely to be held under some remaining social distancing measures. These conditions will pose enormous logistical and political challenges to all stakeholders involved – the UEC, political parties and voters.   

It will for example be extremely difficult, if not impossible from a public-health perspective, to allow parties to mobilise voters via door-to-door campaigns, public talks, and rallies. Myanmar is not South Korea. In April, South Korea – an advanced economy with a significantly more stable and mature political context – successfully held elections while the Covid-19 crisis was still ongoing.

To maintain social distancing, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other parties will have to rely on means of communication such as television, social media and conventional print media. One of the UEC’s biggest headaches will be to ensure a level playing field among political parties in their access to and use of those media during the campaign. 

Moreover, the electoral domain of Myanmar is quite uneven now. The ruling party remains more popular than other parties, at least nationally. That popularity, along with the power of incumbency, gives the NLD a significant competitive advantage in the campaign ahead. At the same time, there are still no hard and fast rules in Myanmar to govern parties’ use of social media for electioneering. 

Parties may enjoy air time on television, but very few Myanmar voters may be interested in watching and listening to a leader or representative of a political party sitting and reading out a manifesto. Some conventional media interviews may be livelier and less stilted, but public interest and trust in commercial, non-state media outlets is unfortunately in decline due to the popular perception that many if not most commercial media outlets are self-interested, deliberately frame news, and neglect the national or partisan interest. Supporters of the NLD and that of the military do not usually tolerate “criticism” by the media, however well-meaning and professional it is. Also, as partisan politics intensifies with the approach of the elections, die-hard supporters of the NLD or fans of its chair State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will not hesitate to call out media that devote what they consider to be excessive coverage of other parties. 

Covid-19 has made the media landscape on which 2020 Myanmar elections will be fought more challenging than ever. Social media, where hate speech and fake news were rampant in the months prior to the November 2015 polls, will be of even greater importance this time around.

What about social media or Facebook? Many political parties have a presence on Facebook. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi started what can be called crisis Facebooking on April 1 in order communicate with citizens about Covid-19. She is likely to continue to use Facebook in the run-up to the elections. And the skyrocketing popularity of her posts has made Myanmar politics seem more partisan and lopsided than ever. 

Chants of ‘Long Live Amay Suu’ (Mother Suu) are reverberating in the Myanmar Facebook sphere. And as the de facto leader of the ruling NLD administration, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also has unbridled access to state radio and television, not least as these cover the day-to-day business of the government.    

Covid-19 has made the media landscape on which 2020 Myanmar elections will be fought more challenging than ever. Social media, where hate speech and fake news were rampant in the months prior to the November 2015 polls, will be of even greater importance this time around. Conventional media outlets – whether in print, electronic or social media forms – will find it difficult to maintain professionalism. Some media will turn partisan, as many did in 2015.

Last but not least, voters inundated by hyper-partisan campaigns on social media will suffer from political distancing from most, if not all, parties because of the Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath. This means that, for better or worse, many voters will most likely make their decisions on the basis of what they see and hear on social media.

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