A trishaw driver wears a face mask promoting the National League for Democracy (NLD) party during an election campaign rally in Yangon, Myanmar, September 8, 2020. Photo: Agencies

Myanmar’s military regime on Tuesday (March 28) took the major step of deregistering the National League for Democracy (NLD), the clear winner of the November 2020 nationwide elections.

The State Administration Council-controlled Union Election Commission (UEC) announced that following the release of the amended Political Party Registration Law in late January, existing political parties had 60 days to re-register.

Forty parties, including the NLD, refused to do so. Fifty other existing parties, including the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), have registered for future polls. A further 13 new political parties have applied for registration.

The SAC has still not announced a date for its planned polls, after renewing the State of Emergency on February 1. The announcement may make it clearer who will and won’t contest, but everything else about the regime’s election plans is subject to speculation.

It is likely that the military leadership still hasn’t decided on when and how it can hold polls. A new system of proportional representation has been announced, but it is unlikely the military-captured electoral commission has the bureaucratic capacity to conduct anything resembling a credible election.

But SAC elections are not designed for credibility. They are being constructed to dupe the already deluded into some semblance of legitimacy for the military takeover.

Dissolving the NLD and 39 other parties, some of whom such as the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), won significant numbers of seats in 2020, turns already discredited poll planning into violent pantomime.

The coup sparked widespread armed resistance to the military, has rendered large parts of Myanmar into conflict and humanitarian disaster zones, and shows no sign of abating; if anything, armed conflict and civilian suffering have been on the rise as the coup enters its third year.

These are not conditions conducive to election preparation, a point SAC leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made in a speech to the annual Armed Force Day parade on March 27.

Myanmar’s coup maker Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Sefa Karacan

The NLD has been subjected to extreme violence since the coup, with hundreds of party members arrested and imprisoned under politically motivated charges of corruption. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned for 33 years on a number of spurious offenses.

Property of NLD party members has been seized and destroyed, and security forces have targeted party members for assassination. Several hundred USDP members have also been killed in targeted assassinations by resistance forces.

Of the 50 parties who had applied for new registration, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDP) is the one most closely aligned with the military. Many of them are smaller parties that will contest only in state and regions, not nationally.

The National Unity Party (NUP), which rose from the ashes of the vanquished Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) to contest the 1990 election, which it lost to the NLD, is running once again after a losing streak that included few votes and fewer parliamentary seats in 2010, 2015 and 2020.

Significant ethnic parties such as the Pa-O National Organization Party (PNO), the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) and the Mon Unity Party (MUP) have registered, but their involvement in future elections will likely suffer from diminished community support, as divisions widen between the subservience of geriatric leaders and angry youth resisting military rule.

One surprise re-registration was the Arakan National Party (ANP), the most popular political party in Rakhine state, likely still smarting from having many of its constituencies canceled by the NLD and military in 2020 due to widespread armed conflict.

However, registration does not automatically infer contesting. The ultimate decision for that will likely be decided by the Arakan Army (AA) leadership, who have extended their Arakan People’s Authority (APA) administration to large parts of Rakhine, and has the capacity to thwart any poll preparation.

Less surprising was the decision by the Arakan Front Party (AFP) of Aye Maung, a quixotic Rakhine ultra-nationalist who appears to have chosen to appease the SAC after being released from prison following the coup. 

As if to presage the assembly of Quisling’s who will contest the elections, Ko Ko Gyi of the People’s Party (PP) attended Monday’s Armed Forces Day event in Naypyidaw: his party registered early in the 60-day period.

He failed to win a seat in 2020 and his PP attracted little support. He was one of several high-profile losers in that election who succumbed to the dark side of anti-Suu Kyi sentiment and entered the military’s orbit. Thet Thet Khaing’s People’s Pioneer Party (PPP) also registered, but she seems committed to serving the SAC as Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.

Also present on Monday’s unconvincing demonstration of military might, and instrumental in rigging the future elections, were the gaggle of thugs who hoodwinked so many diplomats, journalists and military apologists over the years: Khin Yi, former national police chief and the head of the USDP, former admiral Soe Thane, and reportedly some of the leaders of smaller Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) who were in the capital this week for another round of farcical “peace talks.”

A banner featuring Aung San Suu Kyi is displayed on February 15 as protesters demonstrating against the military coup surround police, who had blocked off the street leading to the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), in Yangon that day. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

There is no doubt that the NLD made its share of enemies. Its political culture was deemed to be rigidly hierarchical, with blind fealty to the wintry monarch of Suu Kyi.

The National Unity Government (NUG), which rose partly from NLD members and anchors its legitimacy in the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH, or national assembly) is still grappling with the vestiges of this culture that frustrates the forging of consensus politics, coalition building, inclusivity and the urgent necessity of collective leadership with anti-SAC armed groups throughout the country.

But the deregistration of the NLD, SNLD and others is not the final step in the grotesque illegitimacy of the SAC’s elections plans. There is no possibility that any polls will provide a breakthrough for political reform. Only the most studiously gullible diplomat would fall for these elections designed to launder the atrocities of military rule, not reset democracy. 

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues.