Myanmar Trishaw Drivers Become Campaigners As COVID-19 Stops Canvassing

Myanmar holds nationwide elections on November 8, but with a rapidly increasing COVID-19 infection and death rate, traditional campaign activities cannot occur. Instead, the parties turned their attention to social media and the unique aid of trishaw drivers. In Myanmar, trishaw—three-wheeled passenger bikes—are a common and popular form of public transportation that are always out in the streets. These trishaw drivers are helping the campaigns by decorating “their bicycles and passenger seats with party flags, umbrellas and logos,” according to Reuters. Many trishaw drivers are decorating their vehicles with the colour red and other symbols of the incumbent National League for Democracy, or NLD party, while some of the trishaw “in Myanmar’s biggest city of Yangon displayed the colours of opposition parties running against the NLD,” according to Reuters.

One of these trishaw drivers, Zaw Min, talked to Reuters about his view of the role drivers like him are now playing in the election. “It’s like we are doing an election campaign on their behalf,” he said, decorating his trishaw with the red colours of the incumbent National League for Democracy, as well as dressing himself in red from head to toe. “I hope our activity will be effective for the candidates,” he continued.

“It is not an election rally, it is just to show our support,” said driver Zaw Ko, also a supporter of the NLD. “Now the election gets closer even with these virus restrictions. I hope our activities can help our favourite party.”

Trishaw drivers becoming the de facto campaigners in Myanmar’s election showcases how COVID-19 is forcing people to alter systems that seemed very straightforward before—election campaigning being one of them. It is heartening to see the public participation of Myanmar’s people in this election, making the best of the situation and finding a way to encourage political participation still. However, there is still concern about this election’s fairness, no matter how much civic participation. Myanmar is currently marred by ethnic violence, and areas of the country are under deliberate internet blackouts. While the public involvement of trishaw drivers provides the façade of encouraging public participation, the reality shows a much darker political situation.

The development of trishaw drivers from public transportation to public campaigners comes amidst an already contentious election made even more fragile by the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Myanmar’s COVID-19 infection rate has grown rapidly since mid-August—when they only had a few hundred cases—to more than 18,781 cases and 444 deaths as of October 5, when the country reported 987 new cases and 32 deaths. Amidst the rising infection and death rates, Myanmar authorities are placing all available resources into fighting COVID, leading to questions about the upcoming election’s viability. Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said last week that the election must proceed as planned and that it is “more important than COVID.”

The main challenger to Suu Kyi’s NLD, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, joined together with 23 other opposition parties to call for a postponement of the election. This call for the postponement is further driven by uncertainty over how the plans of the country’s Union Election Commission to regulate campaigning and voting in the pandemic has harmed the ability of parties and civil society organizations to prepare effectively for a free and fair election. The difficulty lies in the fact that the legislature’s term ends January 31, so if no parliamentary election occurs before that date, a constitutional crisis is not unlikely. Even so, the election itself may well have its own host of issues. As The Diplomat explains, “it seems likely that due to the combined impact of tight public health restrictions, ongoing conflict and disenfranchisement, scant international election monitoring, and a host of other technical problems, the election will produce a distorted reflection of the popular will.”

The trishaw drivers acting as political messengers in Myanmar will be just one of the unique images to emerge from the international coronavirus pandemic and is a fascinating adaptation on the part of the people of Myanmar. However, it is a stark reminder of the issues that may arise from this election. With the pandemic, it won’t be easy to monitor the election fully and verify its results. Furthermore, this is only Myanmar’s second election since it transitioned from military rule, and the country is already marred by ethnic violence and open conflict. A fair, peaceful election that takes place safely in the context of COVID-19 must be the primary objective for Myanmar. No matter what happens, however, The Diplomat sums the situation up well: “History could well end up recording Myanmar’s 2020 election—its second since the country’s transition from open military rule—with an asterisk affixed.”

Breanna McCann