Myanmar and Indonesia turn out to have a lot of similarities in terms of how the authorities seem to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to impose new decisions which are feared to threaten democracy.
“Canceling the voting process [in several regions populated by minority ethnic groups] can be considered an act of political genocide,” said Soe Thein, a candidate from the Rakhine State of Myanmar who ran for office during the 2020 Myanmar election under the banner of the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) party.
The Myanmarese government’s decision to cancel the 2020 Elections in the Rakhine state, citing an unending armed conflict in the area, was perceived to have caused a great loss to the ALD party. The problem is, the party, which used to be banned by the Myanmarese government, gained the biggest electoral votes from the Rakhine state — home to the Rohingya stateless refugee community — in 1990. Therefore, ALD has always considered the Rakhine state a party stronghold.
Besides cancelling the elections across 15 small towns in the Rakhine state, home to a lot of marginalized communities, the Myanmar Union Election Commission (UEC) also postponed the elections across the Syah state, along with 41 other small towns. The decisions have garnered quite a controversy because the authorities had taken them without making any public consultations with the political parties which strongholds are located in these places. Not to mention that the decision can also take away the voting rights of about 1.2 million voters living in these areas.
Security issues are not the only reasons cited by Myanmar’s UEC to impose a number of new regulations amid the elections. The elections regulatory body has also justified their decisions using the COVID-19 pandemic as its basis to launch new political campaign regulations.
For instance, the UEC’s new regulation has stipulated that across some red zones of coronavirus contraction, political campaigns can only be attended by 50 participants max, with various health safety protocols embedded to it, such as: that the participants need to maintain a 1.8-meter physical barrier and enough air ventilation in their meeting venues.
The following regulation had been launched by Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports on Sept. 7, just a day before the political campaigns began.
Yet, the commission did not issue new elections-related regulations in COVID-19 red zones only. Generally, it has also altered political campaigns in Myanmar.
“We were only allowed to meet a total of 10,000 people in a month. Previously, they had allowed us to meet more than 10,000 supporters per month. We were also not allowed to conduct political campaigns in refugee camps which had been shut down due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions,” said a Kachin State People’s Party candidate Seung Nu Pan.
With a political campaign period of 60 days only, many people deemed the authorities had made it even more difficult for the candidates to reach out to their supporters, this was especially true for newly-established political parties. For instance, a United Nationalities Democratic Party (UNDP) candidate Naw Ohn Hia said she had a hard time to meet her candidates in several regions due to the pandemic-related restrictions imposed by government authorities.
“I wasn’t able to visit several cities at the edge of Yangon. Several of the UNDP party supporters had actually invited me to go there yet I couldn’t. The authorities also told me that I couldn’t join my supporters during the political campaigns,” she said.
Amid the restrictions to hang out with big crowds, in late afternoons after the voting process had finished, hundreds of the National League for Democracy (NLD) ruling party were violating these regulations by hosting a large meeting in their headquarters in Yangon to celebrate their victory.
The People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) Director Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint said that the restrictions placed on these political campaigns had costed a lot of political parties a chance to actually introduce themselves to the public. In addition to that, Myint also cited a research study which results had been published by PACE, which revealed that currently, only a handful political parties were quite well-known in Myanmar.
“Popularity is still a highly important X factor [for political success] here. I believe that NLD’s popularity becomes a key factor to their victory during this year’s elections,” he said.
Myanmar is not the only place where authorities restrict political campaign activities while citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason; the same thing also happens in Indonesia.
Similar to Myanmar, the Indonesian authorities have also limited the number of people allowed to attend its regional elections down to 50 people only.
Yet, rather than complaining that they could not meet their supporters face-to-face, a lot of Indonesian politicians chose instead to break the rules. During the first 10 days of the political campaigns, the Indonesian Elections Supervision body (Bawaslu) had already recorded 237 COVID-19 pandemic protocol violations, which involved big public gatherings and crowds. About 28 of these gatherings were dispersed by the authorities.
By the 20th and 30th days, the number of violations committed by these Indonesian political candidates did not become smaller at all; if anything, more and more political candidates violated elections-related regulations as the days had gone by. On the 20th and 30th days of the campaign cycles, the Bawaslu recorded 375 and 306 violation cases in each cycle, respectively. During the second 10-day campaign cycle, authorities dispersed 35 of such big gatherings, while during the third 10-day campaign cycle, they dispersed 25 of such gatherings.
A lot of these politicians also violated health protocols after people had casted their votes. A lot of media outlets actually reported that some political candidates in certain regions had conducted convoys to celebrate their quick count victory. The security apparatus swiftly responded to these convoys by dispersing them straight away.
Despite these violations, the Indonesian government still claims that voters are relatively compliant with the COVID-19 pandemic-related health safety protocols being put in place by the authorities.
“Based on our supervision on the behavioral change monitoring system, across 32 provinces covering 309 regencies and cities, at least 178,039 people were reprimanded for violating the health protocols. Other than that, on average, individuals who used face masks in the voting booths accounted for 95.96 percent of the total number of voters. Meanwhile, voters who complied with the physical distancing regulations accounted for 90.71 percent of the entire crowd,” COVID-19 task force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito said during a press conference on the latest development of COVID-19 mitigation efforts in Indonesia on Thursday, Dec. 10.
On the other hand, while individual voters were quite compliant with the protocols, local institutions showed less compliance. Not to mention that we still did not have enough supporting health and hygiene facilities (such as hand washing basins and disinfectant liquids) during the voting process.
The supervisors also failed to pay attention to whether the voting officers complied with the health and hygiene protocols during the voting day.
Based on the observations by jaring.id and suara.com during the regional election day, a lot of voting officers appeared ignorant or confused on what they need to do when they are visiting the homes of COVID-19 patients to allow these people to cast their votes from home. The voting officers had never been trained on how to do this to prepare them during the voting process.
A portion of this writing first appeared in the Asia Democracy Chronicles, an online publication run by the Asia Democracy Network (ADN) focusing on civil freedoms and democracy across Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This article appears here courtesy of the ADN. Other portions of this article have been made possible thanks to a cooperation between jaring.id and suara.com.