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Myanmar Will Not Hold an ‘Election’ in August 2023

Myanmar regime chief Min Aung Hlaing chairs a meeting at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Naypyitaw following the February 1, 2021 coup. / AFP

An election is understood to mean “a formal and organized choice by vote of a person for a political office or other position.” Myanmar’s junta has claimed it will organize an ‘election’ for August 2023. Don’t call it what it isn’t. The junta’s event, whatever it is and looks like, will in no way be an election. If analysts, media, and diplomats use the term ‘election’, the onus is on them to justify and prove why and how exactly it wasn’t legitimate when in fact it wasn’t even what happened.

This isn’t just about semantics. It is about establishing the factual basis for what is transpiring in reality. Autocrats who co-opt democratic terms are very skillful at doing so to create a narrative that they are something they are not. The best way to prevent this is to stop allowing them to freely use words they have no basis for using. Simply put — democracies need to stop letting dictatorships co-opt the terminology of democracy. By not pushing back, and by not introducing new terminology that accurately describes what dictatorships are doing, it allows the autocrats of the world to claim legitimacy by dressing up their actions with words that should never have been used in the first place.

When Myanmar’s generals say “discipline flourishing democracy”, it means dictatorship. When Xi Xinping says there is a “Chinese-style democracy” and an “American-style democracy”, he is spouting utter nonsense. China under the Communist Party is a totalitarian dictatorship from top to bottom and in no way is a democracy. Even more onerously totalitarian and unquestionably not a democracy is North Korea, the so-called “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. Claims of elections in such countries are nonsense. Having a ‘choice’ of one person picked by one party does not make for an election.

In Myanmar in 2008 a ‘referendum’ on the 2008 Constitution never happened. This was a coerced, fraudulent exercise that in no way reflected the will of the people or even marginally synced with the intentions of the term ‘referendum’. The fact that the exercise happened in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis highlights this point, namely that the exercise was coerced, predetermined, and never had any intention of representing the will of the Myanmar people. The sad thing is that because this term was used so extensively and became mainstream, including in international media, over the years it became, by default, accepted as what happened. This then lent unfortunate credence to the 2008 Constitution. The same is true for the 2010 election. Myanmar’s only free and fair elections in its modern history, even though problematic in important ways, were the by-elections starting in 2012 and the general elections of 2015 and 2020.

As regards the junta’s plans for a 2023 poll, commentators in the media, civil society or diplomacy that use terms and phrases like “sham elections” or “elections under military rule” unfortunately start the discourse from a disadvantage. They inherently force those rightly accusing dictators of being dictators to prove that the ‘election’ wasn’t good enough for this or that reason, when what happened wasn’t even an election in the first place. If one starts the conversation with a false term, it inherently lends legitimacy to whoever is claiming that term as being true. This approach became mainstream after being adopted by former United States President Donald Trump, when he called the 2020 US election “fraudulent”.

Words matter. They matter because they set narratives about what is happening or what will happen. By allowing the junta to use the term ‘election’ and to state that it will occur in August 2023, it catalyzes the wider international narrative about what’s happening in Myanmar. In simple terms, it creates the axis around which policy discourses begin to swirl about what to do as regards the country. Within Myanmar even if some fraudulent, coerced event occurs in August 2023 it will not actually do anything to stop the revolution against the junta because the Myanmar people have made it clear in a thousand ways that they do not accept a return to military rule. Internationally, though, the military regime is using this term to create the illusion of a clear “roadmap” of what the world can expect. While some countries have already called out the junta’s plans and said that they won’t accept the result of any ‘election’, other countries are clearly just waiting for the junta to declare the event a success, even if it will be the regime’s proxies and newly-retired generals who will ‘win’.

There is a story unfolding in Myanmar, but it does not match what the junta is saying. An August report from the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar highlighted that the junta only has stable control over 17 per cent of the country. The rest of the country is in active and escalating armed resistance against junta forces or is controlled by ethnic armed organizations that do not accept military rule in their areas, even if they maintain ceasefires with the military.

Hence, this is a country of approximately 55 million people in a sustained, committed revolution that’s focused on building a better future for themselves and future generations. It is not just about getting rid of the military or the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s myopic “returning to normalcy” tomfoolery, in other words a toxic quasi-democracy built around military paramountcy. It is about creating a fundamentally different country built around real federal democracy. As the National Unity Government’s Acting President Duwa Lashi La has so profoundly stated: this is the second war for independence. Myanmar’s people want to start afresh.

The world should stop accepting the Myanmar military’s use of the term ‘election’ completely because that is not what will happen. The military’s event — which will undoubtedly be preordained, coercive, highly violent and in no way an election in any meaning of the word — is not the pole around which the conflict in the country will be resolved. A better term doesn’t currently exist in the English language, but surely one needs to be created along the lines of “coerced deception”.

In essence, don’t accept the regime’s narrative that there is a pathway to peace and stability and that the key date is August 2023. There is a pathway to peace in Myanmar, but it means the complete defeat of the current military and the implementation of the roadmap articulated by the Federal Democracy Charter drawn up by the democratic resistance’s National Unity Consultative Council.

Matthew B. Arnold is an independent policy analyst. He has been researching Myanmar’s politics and governance since 2012.