Asia Politics

Myanmar's government won a landslide victory in 2015. It may not be so lucky next time

Key Points
  • Myanmar de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling party is losing popularity among ethnic minorities.
  • That could hurt the ruling party's performance in the 2020 national election, strategists warned.
  • Beyond its political agenda, "the government has done little to improve the Myanmar economy, offering relatively incoherent economic plans and presiding over continuing severe inequality," said one expert.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate and State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the Asia Society in New York on Sept. 21, 2016.
Ted Kemp | CNBC

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi led her political party to a landslide victory three years ago, ending decades of military-backed rule and raising hopes for democracy. Today, the dominance of her ruling party — the National League for Democracy — is gradually eroding ahead of the country's next election in 2020.

Suu Kyi, who is officially barred from the presidency but still rules as State Counselor through trusted proxies, has experienced a stunning fall from grace over her mishandling of minority and indigenous groups. Myanmar is dominated by Buddhist-majority Bamars who have long clashed with smaller factions such as the Kachin people, who are mostly Christian, and the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim community.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the military's violent persecution against the Rohingya in the state of Rakhine that escalated in August 2017. The state's brutal crackdown has displaced thousands, triggering a mass exodus of Rohingya refugees to neighboring Bangladesh.

Minority voters souring on the NLD

More citizens are realizing that Suu Kyi does not support Myanmar's various religious and ethnic minorities that are targeted by the ever-powerful military, experts said. Last year, widespread protests erupted after statues of Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San — widely considered a Bamar hero — were erected in states home to minorities.

The NLD's waning popularity among ethnic minorities, who make up roughly 30 percent of Myanmar's population, could hurt the governing party's performance in the next election. While many still anticipate an NLD victory in 2020, it will be one "with a much lesser margin of victory," said Hunter Marston, an independent Myanmar analyst based in Washington, DC.

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The Union Solidarity and Development Party —the main opposition party supported by the military — and coalitions of ethnic political parties "could certainly chip away at the NLD's electoral dominance and parliamentary majority in 2020," Marston noted.

During by-elections earlier this month, the NLD retained its overall parliamentary majority but lost several seats previously held in minority-dominant areas. Low voter turnout in Yangon, the NLD's base, was particularly troubling, Marston pointed out.

The government has done little to improve the Myanmar economy, offering relatively incoherent economic plans and presiding over continuing severe inequality.
Joshua Kurlantzick
Council on Foreign Relations

But even before those elections, Suu Kyi's government already faced stumbling blocks. In March, the sudden resignation of former President Htin Kyaw was interpreted as a worrying sign for the political leadership.

It's no surprise that minority voters are souring on the NLD, political watchers say.

"Under the Suu Kyi government, the military has actually expanded its battles against many ethnic minority insurgent groups, and peace deals that would affect ethnic minority areas in the north and northeast have gained little traction," Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a recent note.

Rebuke from world leaders

The United Nations has accused Myanmar's troops of mass Rohingya killings, gang rapes and the burning of entire villages in Rakhine, calling for army officials to face genocide charges. But Suu Kyi, who was recently stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship, has said the military was operating according to the "rule of law." She has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and defended the arrest of Reuters journalists who were reporting on the state's role in Rohingya killings.

Her inaction on the matter has drawn sharp criticism from world leaders.

At a summit in Singapore last week, U.S. President Mike Pence told Suu Kyi that the persecution of Rohingya was inexcusable. Washington, in August, imposed sanctions on some military and police commanders in Myanmar over the humanitarian crisis.

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Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said last week that he was "very disappointed" with the Myanmar leader.

Politics aside, the NLD's economic track record is also an issue among voters. Public resentment against strict internet censorship, increased consumer prices and rickety public infrastructure has been growing, local media reported.

"The government has done little to improve the Myanmar economy, offering relatively incoherent economic plans and presiding over continuing severe inequality," Kurlantzick said. He attributed the low voter turnout in November's by-elections to dissatisfaction with the government's track record on the economy and rule of law.

"These trends are potentially ominous for the NLD for the 2020 election," he warned.