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Myanmar election: Former supporters turn away from Aung San Suu Kyi

The upcoming vote is viewed as a test for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. A former supporter tells DW the reasons for his disillusionment with the electoral process. Cape Diamond and May Thingyan report from Yangon.

"I decided not to vote this time as the NLD government has been unable to satisfy me as a voter and a citizen," Ye Wai Phyo Aung told DW during an interview in Yangon.     

Ye Wai Phyo Aung is the co-founder of the human rights organization Athan in Myanmar. The 25-year-old researcher and activist is known for promoting human rights values and activism. He is not excited to participate in the upcoming national elections, scheduled for November 8.

"I was even looking for an alternative option to vote but didn't find any in the area," he stressed. 

Read more: Can Myanmar ensure free and fair general elections?

In 2015, Ye Wai voted for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of the State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi. "In 2015, I even got up at 4 a.m. to go to the polling station. Yes, I voted for the NLD candidate," said Ye Wai Phyo Aung.

"I was so excited, and it was my first-time vote. I couldn't even get enough of it [voting]. So I went to the polling station again and again together with family members when they are casting their votes," he added.

Watch video 02:30

Myanmar election: Voters prepare to cast ballots amid COVID-19 pandemic

Disappointment with NLD

Ye Wai was 20 years old in 2015, and national elections seemed to him as a path towards democracy and a better future. Five years later, he is advocating for freedom of expression and campaigns for civilian supremacy in a country where the military still holds significant powers.

His organization Athan said that since the NLD took control in 2016, military lawsuits against civilian voices have increased. The Myanmar army, also known as Tatmadaw, has filed 47 lawsuits against 96 people, including 51 activists, four artists and three members of political parties. 

Read more: Myanmar's democracy movement 30 years on – military still calls the shots

Ye Wai and many others are disappointed with the performance of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. In July, six activists including the co-founder of Athan, Maung Saungkha, were charged for participating in a protest against an internet shutdown in the country's western Rakhine province. 

Ye Wai Phyo Aung said authorities have been chasing the members of his organization, both online and offline. "Intelligence agencies are following us even on social media to follow our activities and collect information on us," he said. 

Ye Wai Phyo Aung is the co-founder of the human rights organization Athan in Myanmar

Ye Wai and many others are disappointed with the performance of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi

Boycott calls

Activists in Myanmar launched an election boycott campaign in August, encouraging people to refrain from voting. The campaign rests on the premise that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have failed to deliver on the promises they made during the 2015 campaign. 

The nation's Union Election Commission (UEC) has said that those who encourage others not to vote could be prosecuted under various sections of laws governing elections for the upper and lower houses of Parliament as well as state and regional legislatures.

"I feel like the UEC is threatening us [non-voters] and our right to freedom of expression," Ye Wai Phyo Aung said. 

Aung San Suu Kyi called the boycott campaign an irresponsible act. "To say, 'I don't like this or I don't like that' and to refuse to vote is a very reckless act," she told government officials during a conference call on August 5. 

The vote boycott campaign is now supported by various trade and student unions. 

"I also do not believe in the Union Election Commission, and I don't think they could hold a free and fair election. That's one of the reasons why I am not going to vote," Ye Wai Phyo Aung said.

"I don't want to be one who is supporting the untrustworthy election by casting my ballot," he added. 

Nay Toon, a musician from an ethnic minority community, told DW that he will also not vote on Sunday. He rejected the accusation leveled by ruling party supporters that those calling for boycotting the election are receiving money and support from abroad.

"We are being accused that we got money and support from international organizations to do this campaign. But that is not the case, it is just our individual desire," he said. 

Read more: Coronavirus and security issues cast a pall over Myanmar polls

Fundamentally flawed

The Union Election Commission has canceled elections in nine of 17 townships in Rakhine. The credibility of these elections is also under question. Due to restrictions related to COVID-19, there is not much excitement seen in the nation's big cities like Yangon, say observers.

According to the People's Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), only 30% of Myanmar people are interested in politics, a significant decline from 2016 when 56% of those surveyed said they were interested.

Nay Toon, a musician from an ethnic minority community in Myanmar

'We are being accused that we got money and support from international organizations to do this campaign. But that is not the case, it is just our individual desire,' said Toon

Young people like Ye Wai appear disillusioned with the electoral process and are joining the vote boycott campaign.

Not only Ye Wai but also some other young voters are skeptical that Myanmar would be able to successfully hold the election amid the current surge in coronavirus infections.

To reduce the risk of virus transmission, the UEC has increased the number of polling stations and put in place measures to ensure adequate physical distancing and hygiene.

Voters who are over 60 have been casting their ballots in advance-voting since Thursday. 

Rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch (HRW), however, say the elections are fundamentally flawed. "The elections can't be free and fair so long as a quarter of the seats are reserved for the military, access to state media is not equal, government critics face censorship or arrest and the Rohingya are denied participation in the vote," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director.

Falling from grace

Aung San Suu Kyi was hailed globally as a fighter for democracy who stood up to her country's feared military dictatorship while spending 15 years under house arrest. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

But her reputation took a beating worldwide after she failed to speak up against the Myanmar military's crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine, which the United Nations has called a "textbook example" of ethnic cleansing. 

While Canada revoked the honorary citizenship granted to her, London-based global human rights organization Amnesty International stripped her of its highest honor.

Aung San Suu Kyi has also lost numerous smaller awards from individual universities and local and regional governments.

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