SIM Report: Southeast Asia, Issue 8

Myanmar: COVID-19 surge heightens instability risks as West, China jockey for influence ahead of November elections 

Myanmar’s leader State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday (8 September) initiated her re-election campaign at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in the capital Naypyidaw ahead of polls scheduled for 8 November. Her announcement was originally planned to be held in the major urban centre of Yangon on Monday (7 September) but was reorganised on the advice of the health ministry due to a spike in novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. Myanmar had experienced weeks of no new COVID-19 infections and numerous rules had been eased until mid-August, when infections were recorded in the western Rakhine state.

The NLD is forecast to reclaim victory in the elections, maintaining its popular support despite criticism regarding setbacks in the country’s peace process, as well as lack of success in limiting the power of the Tatmadaw, or military. The NLD has also been globally condemned over a 2017 crackdown on the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority. The Tatmadaw continues to hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and controls three crucial ministries, virtually equipping it with veto powers. Areas mostly hosting the ethnic Bamar majority are likely to remain NLD strongholds, though other parties, some of which are urging elections to be delayed over rising COVID-19 cases, may benefit from potential criticism towards the NLD if it is perceived to be mishandling the pandemic or going forward with the elections despite apparent public health risks. The NLD’s popularity may also be dented by a diminished economic outlook, with the World Bank forecasting the country’s growth to decline from 6.8 per cent to 0.5 per cent in 2020’s fiscal year. Should COVID-19 spiral out of control in Myanmar, then the government would be under pressure to defer the elections, a measure that has been taken in numerous other countries.

Further complicating the election is the vying of largely Western countries against China for influence in the country. The Chinese government’s relationship towards Myanmar is complex. On the one hand, China is boosting investment in the country through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the other hand, the Tatmadaw has indirectly acknowledged that China is furnishing the Rakhine-based Arakan Army insurgent group with arms. Nonetheless, senior Chinese Communist Party official Yang Jiechi’s assurance that Myanmar would be prioritised in the event of the development of a vaccine indicates a likely maintenance of favourable relations with China over the West, regardless of the election outcome. This is particularly as a Chinese vaccine appears likely to be released ahead of vaccines from other countries, and recent developments portend to an escalation in Myanmar’s COVID-19 situation. China locked down the city of Ruili, a key land border crossing point to Myanmar, on 15 September after a local spike in infections driven by imported cases from Myanmar. Additionally, Myanmar has recently had to build field hospitals in Yangon – a lockdown of which was extended from 21 September – after a recent surge in infections. Altogether, Myanmar is likely to experience heightened social and political unrest in the short-to-medium term as the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic fallout raise instability risks.

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