Myanmar’s powerful military on Tuesday declined to rule out staging a coup over its claim that the country’s 2020 elections were tainted by voter fraud, as experts warned the dispute is leading to a political crisis in the nascent democracy that emerged from harsh army junta rule only a decade ago.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the Nov. 8 elections in a landslide, but the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party contends there was widespread voter fraud and has been increasing pressure on electoral authorities to investigate.
The military, whose soldiers are guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament under the constitution, and the USDP, made up of former military officers, claim to have found 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists in 314 townships that could have let voters cast multiple ballots or commit other “voting malpractice.”
But the military and its proxy, the USDP, which fared poorly in the November vote, have not presented any evidence of actual voter fraud on the day of the election. Army and USDP backers have staged protests in several cities in central Myanmar this year.
Major General Zaw Min Tun, the military spokesperson, asked at a weekly news conference whether an army takeover could be ruled out, said: “No. As I said already, the military is going to follow the laws, including the constitution and existing laws. In order to strengthen the democratic system, we are going to follow and reflect those laws.”
Asked to clarify, he said: “What I want to say is that we do not say the military will seize state power nor do we say we will not seize power. We will follow the laws in accordance with the constitution.”
'There are options to file complaints'
Myanmar’s constitution, enacted in 2008 under military rule, contains a provision that allows the military’s commander-in-chief to wield sovereign power during a state of emergency that could lead to a disintegration of the country.
Some critics have said this makes a military coup technically legal, though the state of emergency would have to be declared by Myanmar’s president, a civilian.
Zaw Min Tun reiterated the military’s demand that the ruling government, the Union Election Commission and the Union parliament resolve the election disputes, claiming all three are manipulating the law to avoid addressing the army’s contentions.
“Whether or not they are manipulating the law, you can clearly see if you read our previous statements,” he said.
“We have clarified this issue from a legal point of view, and we have requested a special parliamentary meeting on the matter. They have refused. We have already released statements on which of their actions are not legal… There are other issues as well. I would like to say that you should all read them again,” Zaw Min Tun said.
Legal experts and the NLD’s members of parliament said that the dispute over potential voter fraud should be settled in the courts.
“If they are unsatisfied with the ongoing disputes about the election results, there are options to file complaints under the election law,” Aung Thein, an NLD member of parliament told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“I think they need to take that route. There is no legal mandate that the UEC must respond and answer to each separate question. If what they are doing is not in line with the law, the military has to act according to the law. … If the government authorities have to come forward and give an explanation whenever the military makes an allegation at a press conference, there will be no end to it,” Aung Thein said.
But disputing the election’s results after the fact is not helping the country come together according to Zin Mar Oo from the Myanmar Network for Free and Fair Elections.
“It won’t be so complicated if we stick to the mandate that the UEC’s decision is final no matter what,” Zin Mar Oo told RFA.
“They didn’t say anything when the authorities initially compiled the voters list. But now that the election is over, they are playing the blame game. It does not make any sense,” he added.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, which swept the Nov. 8 elections by securing more than 82% of all 1,117 contested seats in the Union, state, and regional legislatures, will form a government and launch Aung San Suu Kyi’s second five-year term around the end of March.
The USDP has refused to accept the results of the vote in which it won only 71 seats, or 6.4%, nationwide.
In response to the allegations, the UEC has been mostly silent, contributing to the risk of a political crisis in the form of tensions between the ruling party and the powerful military. The analysts said that the military is growing more assertive as its claims are ignored by both the ruling party and the UEC.
“There are growing disagreements between the military and the ruling government. In fact, when the military initially released the alleged voting fraud lists for 10 or 11 townships, the ruling government should have reacted by releasing its own lists for these townships to refute their claim,” Ye Htut, a political observer and former minister of information, told RFA.
“This problem should have been resolved much earlier, but now the issue has snowballed over time,” Ye Htut said.
He called on State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the military leaders and the UEC to resolve the issue at the negotiating table, saying he was concerned that the dispute could grow to the point where it causes political instability or has negative effects on the economy.
The NLD rejected the notion that the UEC’s lack of response was causing any friction with the military.
“The UEC made a decision within its authority. I don’t think its inaction is pushing the NLD and the military into crisis. It really depends on the perspective of the observers,” NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt told RFA.
“I don’t think the UEC’s actions have any effect on the national reconciliation work between the NLD and the military,” he said.
Zaw Min Tun, however, hinted during Tuesday’s press conference that the UEC’s silence was making a strained relationship worse.
“You could judge by the example of the relationship between two people. If you treat me fairly but I ignore your demands for your rights and opportunities, will you and I have a good relationship?” he asked.
“Just think about it. This is the basis. I don’t want to say anything else,” Zaw Min Tun said.
Aung Moe Zaw, chairman of the Democratic Party for New Society, one of the country’s minor political parties, said he didn’t think the voter fraud dispute would affect the country’s most urgent issues.
“I only think the UEC needs to come forward and resolve this problem,” he told RFA.
RFA attempted to reach the UEC and presidential office spokesperson Zaw Htay for comment, but they did not respond.
The dispute is drawing attention away from more urgent issues Myanmar faces, according to Sai Nyunt Lwin, the vice chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, a political party that advocates for Myanmar’s largest ethnic minority.
“In a time like this, the only and most critical issue should be national reconciliation,” Sai Nyunt Lwin told RFA, referring to ongoing fighting between the military and ethnic insurgent groups in the country’s western areas.
“I think it is best if they meet and calmly discuss this issue. They should have face-to-face meetings for better communication,” he said.
Intervention by the military is troubling to many in Myanmar, which endured brutal, corrupt military rule from 1962 to 2011. In 1990, the military nullified the results of an election in which the NLD won 81% of the seats in parliament, holding Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010.