YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi cast her early vote for the upcoming general elections on Thursday amid strict health and safety measures as COVID-19 cases rise in the Southeast Asian nation.
Wearing gloves and a mask, Suu Kyi deposited her paper ballot in Naypyidaw, the capital, rather than in her constituency in Yangon given the travel restrictions in the country.
The leader encouraged Burma’s population on Monday to go out and vote for the Nov. 8 ballot but to abide by the COVID-19 health and safety regulations in place. Some opposition supporters have called for the election process to be delayed.
Myanmar avoided the worst effects of the pandemic earlier this year but by August it had an overall caseload of 49,000 and had reported 1,171 deaths.
Although these figures are relatively low for a national population of 53 million, they are enough to saturate the country’s vulnerable health system.
The United Nations said it had “serious concerns” about the human rights situation ahead of the election in Myanmar.
“These include violations of the right to political participation, particularly of minority groups – including, disproportionately, the Rohingya Muslim and ethnic Rakhine population in Rakhine State,” a spokesperson for the high commissioner for human rights said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Myanmar’s discriminatory citizenship and electoral laws confer different sets of political rights to different classes of citizens, affecting most clearly the Muslim minorities who are largely excluded from citizenship.”
The UN agency added that the country’s electoral commission had canceled polling in 57 municipalities without sufficient justification, while some parts of Rakhine and Chin states were being affected by telephone and internet blackouts.
The Myanmar Army is currently fighting the ethnic-separatist rebels of the Arakan Army in Rakhine State, which is home to the Rohingya minority group that was subjected to a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign by the military and forced out of their settlements in 2017.
In recent months dozens of people have been arrested – and some of them sentenced with up to six years in jail – for demonstrating in favor of ending the violence in Rakhine and Chin.
“We urge the Government to drop charges against all those facing legal action for exercising their right to freedom of expression – a right that is particularly precious in a pre-electoral context,” the UN agency added.
The legislative election on Nov. 8 will be the third poll to be held in Myanmar since the transition from a military dictatorship towards democracy in 2010.
The huge victory lodged by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party in the 2015 elections stoked great expectations both in Myanmar and abroad that the country was poised to open up and embrace democracy.
However, Suu Kyi has since fallen out of favor with the international community and has come in for heavy criticism for her dismissal of the plight of the Rohingya community, leading to her Nobel Peace Prize being revoked.
The army has been accused of genocide by the International Criminal Court, but Suu Kyi defended the military’s actions at the ICC in the Hague last year. She remains extremely popular in her country.
Suu Kyi, 75, is currently the state counselor, a post that was created for her and effectively means she acts as a prime minister with powers that exceed the presidency. She is also the foreign affairs minister.