As the clock ticks down to the 2020 general election, social and political events are overshadowed by two key issues: COVID-19 and ethnic conflict.

For the moment, the government appears determined to push ahead with the November polls, and the National League for Democracy is still expected to win – albeit on reduced scale. But, as in so many countries, 2020 will be remembered as a year of extraordinary challenges and new crises.

Initially, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to have little impact in Myanmar. A combination of seasonal and demographic factors were considered to be the main reasons, supported by prompt actions by the government and community-based organisations. But the virus began to spread rapidly during the second half of the year: from 749 cases and 6 deaths at the end of August to 47,666 cases and 1,147 deaths in late October. The real impact, however, was undoubtedly larger. As the country went into lockdown, medical workers struggled to cope, with health systems precariously stretched.

Nowhere were these pressures felt more acutely than conflict zones in the ethnic states. Food supplies and the lack of work are the main priorities in many households. Up to two million people remain displaced in the Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Rakhine and Shan State borderlands, with substantial refugee populations still in Bangladesh, India and Thailand.

The latest 21st Century Panglong Conference went ahead in constrained circumstances in Nay Pyi Taw in August, but it failed to make a breakthrough. During the past two years, the Tatmadaw (national armed forces) has excluded Rakhine State from its ceasefire announcements, and civilian casualties are continuing to mount. Meanwhile both the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice are proceeding with war crime investigations in The Hague.

Against this backdrop, a growing number of voices called for the elections to be postponed. With travel and campaigning halted in the field, it was difficult to see how polls could be carried out in a free and fair way. Certainly, there are constituencies where there will be full or partial cancellations. But NLD leaders were still keen to proceed. At a time when the party’s reputation has been in decline, COVID-19 and the restrictions on campaigning are generally perceived to be to the advantage of the incumbent authorities, not least on the internet where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is very popular. Equally pressing, postponement could lead to a constitutional crisis that might prove difficult to resolve.

Ultimately, the results of the 2020 polls are not expected to produce any dramatic change. More important will be the lessons learned from the three key challenges during the year: COVID-19, ethnic impasse and the election conduct. Whatever the results, the challenges of democratisation and peace-building will still remain. It is to be hoped that, once the polls are past, 2020 will mark a turning-point when reform momentum is once again renewed.

Martin Smith, 1 November 2020