The politics of Myanmar were once cast as a simple morality tale: an imprisoned lady with flowers in her hair battling a clutch of generals who massacred and imprisoned pro-democracy activists.
Recent events have muddied that narrative. As the country heads into a general election on Sunday, the vote will serve not only as an appraisal of a fragile democracy, but also as a referendum on its civilian leader, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Myanmar is now mentioned overseas in the same breath as Darfur or Sarajevo, for its military’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. In an international court last year, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, still with flowers in her hair, defended Myanmar against accusations of genocide.
Her government, studded with former political prisoners, has emulated some of the repressive tactics of the military leaders who locked her up, censoring and jailing peaceful poets, students and Buddhist monks. Some of the young activists running as opposition candidates in Sunday’s elections have been arrested on the kind of questionable charges the military junta once wielded.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, and her National League for Democracy, which has been sharing power with the military for five years, are likely to prevail in the polls. Even with a pandemic raging, early voting among older citizens has been enthusiastic. Some have carried images of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of an independence hero, with them into polling stations, like a charm.
But the fact that the health of Myanmar’s democracy remains so linked to a single woman has frustrated many politicians, who accuse the National League for Democracy of failing to build the kind of institutions needed for democracy to fully take root in the country.
“We have sacrificed our lives to have a democratic country, but now we are losing hope because of the ruling party,” said U Ko Ko Gyi, a former student leader and political prisoner for 17 years. He formally broke from Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi last year and formed the People’s Party, which is fielding candidates for the first time on Sunday.
Waiting in the wings is the military, which still controls the most important levers of power and is waging war against ethnic minorities, who make up roughly one-third of the nation’s population. In 1962, a rabidly nationalist general launched a coup against a government overwhelmed by ethnic strife. A half century of military rule followed.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander in chief, has hinted to insiders that he might like to be president, a position that will be decided by Parliament by March 2021. Given that the army chief commands one-quarter of the national legislature, which is reserved for military officers, and the three top cabinet positions, along with a fighting force of some 350,000 soldiers, it could be hard to deny the general his wishes.
“He is the leader of the strongest institution in Myanmar and if he becomes president, the country will be better,” said U Thein Tun Oo, a spokesman for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which represents the army’s interests. “Only a few people have bad reviews of him.”
In Myanmar’s frontier lands, where the country’s ethnic minorities are concentrated, the military is unwelcome. So is Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose promise to bring peace and national reconciliation has been undercut by intensifying conflict between the military and ethnic armies fighting for autonomy from the state, as well as by widespread disenfranchisement.
Last month, more than 1.5 million registered voters out of an electorate of about 37 million people were disenfranchised when polls were canceled in their districts before Sunday’s election. The national election commission said open fighting between the military and various ethnic armies made balloting impossible.
“If the ethnic armed groups agree to solve the problem without weapons, then ethnic minorities will get the chance to vote and choose ethnic members of Parliament as they like,” said U Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy.
Daw Tin Mar Aung was once a stalwart of the National League for Democracy, serving as a personal aide to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and traveling with her as she collected human rights awards around the world. But Ms. Tin Mar Aung is now running as a candidate for a political party representing the Rakhine ethnicity in a state plagued by armed conflict. Ethnic parties had expected to profit from the National League for Democracy’s slide in support since its landslide victory in 2015.
The electoral commission’s cancellation of the vote in parts of Rakhine State robbed her of 80 percent of her constituency, Ms. Tin Mar Aung said.
“It’s not fair, it’s not right, but at least I have 20 percent to work for,” she said. “Other candidates have lost their entire constituency so those voters have no rights at all. I’m really sorry because this is not democracy.”
Another million or so Rohingya Muslims, many of whom fled a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign three years ago, never enjoyed any hope of voting in these elections. Many now live in cramped refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh, after their villages were burned down, while others have been confined to internment camps.
On the eve of the elections, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have retained her popularity among those who view her as a kind of goddess of democracy. While dozens of new political parties are fielding fresh candidates, none have the organizational breadth of the National League for Democracy, which grew from the ashes of a crushed student movement in 1988.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fans say that it is impossible in just five years for a civilian leader — especially one still forced to share power — to sweep away the ills of decades of a military dictatorship that battered the nation’s health and education systems and gutted the economy.
Supporters say that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who serves as the nation’s state counselor because she is precluded from the presidency by the military-drafted constitution, must tread carefully. On Tuesday, General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, implied that the election commission was under the influence of the National League for Democracy, and complained of numerous missteps in the election process.
A government spokesman hit back, accusing the army commander of fomenting instability and violating the Constitution. On Thursday, just three days from the election, the military released a statement reminding the public that it was the nation’s “guardian.”
In a video posted on Facebook the same day, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended her government and the country’s democratic progress.
“As most politicians have said, the system of democracy is not flawless but it’s the best one among the systems invented by the people,” she wrote. “Even in a longtime democratic country, there are problems with elections.”
Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok and Saw Nang from Yangon, Myanmar.