Ethnic Minorities and Proportional Representation in Myanmar

Posted by Sarah John on September 05, 2014

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Myanmar (Burma) has had a checkered history of alternating military government and fragile electoral democracy since the end of British colonial rule in 1948. In the 1990 elections, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming majority of seats on a proposed committee to draft a new national constitution, but the country’s military government intervened. After years of strict military rule, a new constitution was finally ratified in 2008. The new constitution created a bicameral legislature (the Assembly of the Union or Pyidaungsu Hluttaw). Voters elect 75% of the seats in both the 440-member House of Representatives (the lower house, called Pyithu Hluttaw) and the 224-member House of Nationalities (the upper house, called Amyotha Hluttaw). In both legislative houses, the remaining 25% of seats are reserved for military officials. Two years after the constitution was ratified—in 2010—Myanmar held its first semi-democratic elections in twenty years.

Despite the omnipresent echoes of a military dictatorship only tentatively thrust off, Myanmar has a distinctive electoral system, and the country is currently engaged in lively debate over adopting a form of proportional representation (PR) for its national legislative elections. In this analysis, FairVote will clarify the effects and characteristics of different approaches to PR to assist in the Myanmar legislature’s ongoing debates over electoral systems reform.

Electing the Legislature in 2010

The 330 elective members of Myanmar’s House of Representatives are chosen from single-member districts based on rough population estimates. Representatives are elected using a majoritarian form of U.S.-style plurality voting in single-member districts: the winning candidate must receive an absolute majority (50% + 1) of votes cast (in the absence of an absolute majority it seems the seat remains vacant until the next set of by-elections). Additionally, a candidate with an absolute majority can only be elected if at least 51% of the district’s registered voters turn out to vote.

The House of Nationalities’ 168 elective members, by contrast, are elected by the country’s major administrative areas: seven “regions”—also termed “divisions”—and seven “states.” Each region and each state elects twelve members. Sources are unclear as to whether the 12 representatives from each region and state are elected in multi-member districts or, more likely, in 12 single-member districts per region and state; either way, winner-take-all rules apply, as does the stipulation that 51% of registered voters must vote in order for the winning candidate to take office.

In the 2010 elections, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military junta’s new political party, won a majority (259 of 330 elective seats) in the House of Representatives. This constituted 78.5% of the elective seats from 58.9% of the national vote. At least 11 other parties shared the remaining 71 elective seats, many of them ethnic minority parties from the edges of the country. Results were similar in the upper house, with the USDP winning 129 of 168 (76.8%) elective seats from 57.6% of the vote. More than 8 other parties shared 39 elective seats. In both houses, plurality voting clearly benefited the establishment party disproportionately at the expense of ethnic minority parties (Table 1).

Table 1: 2010 Burmese Election Results


Military Seats

Union Solidarity and Development Party

Other political parties

House of Representatives


Seats won

Percentage of total elective seats

Percentage of national vote

Seats won

Percentage of total elective seats

Percentage of national vote







House of Nationalities


Seats won

Percentage of total elective seats

Percentage of national vote

Seats won

Percentage of total elective seats

Percentage of national vote








Plans to Reform the Voting System in time for the 2015 Elections

In the lead-up to Myanmar’s 2015 elections, proposals to reform the country’s majoritarian variation of plurality voting have sparked the interest of the legislature. Proportional representation, often vaguely defined, has been the principal focus. In June 2014, the House of Nationalities held a commission to investigate the prospect of a PR electoral system, which reported favorably. In July, the House of Representatives debated PR for three days before deciding to form a committee to study the issue more closely. That committee, made up of members from all parties and the military, is currently in the middle of its two-month long investigation into PR.

Two key themes permeate the discussion of PR in and around the newly built capital, Naypyidaw. The first theme is the representation of ethnic minorities. The second theme centers on suspicion about the motives of the governing USDP as it looks down the barrel of almost certain electoral defeat.

Racial and Ethnic Minority Representation

The current proposals for PR appear to have originated with the National Democratic Force (NDF), a small party centered in Yangon, and to have been based on concerns about minority representation, broadly defined. Khin Waing Kyi, NDF member in the House of Nationalities, explained that he believed PR “allows participation from multi-parties” and would “facilitate more dynamic discussions” in the legislature. Fellow NDF politician, Aung Zin, proposed PR in the House of Representatives “because under the PR system, we can get more minority groups’ representatives and voices in Parliament, since the seats are in proportion with the number of votes.”

The representation of ethnic minorities is a central issue in any discussion of Burmese constitutional or electoral law. The Bamar majority, from which Myanmar took its colonial name, makes up around two thirds of the country’s population. Bamar are concentrated in the highly populated Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, Magway, Mandalay and Saigain regions, all in the center of the country. Meanwhile, many of the states, typically at the outer peripheries of Myanmar, are dominated by ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Kachin and Rakhine peoples.

Myanmar Divisions

(Map source: Central Intelligence Agency. 2007)

On paper, an observer might expect better representation of the political preferences of ethnic minorities in the House of Nationalities than in the House of Representatives. This is because the House of Nationalities provides for over-representation of the states, in which minority groups tend to predominate: the seven states receive 50% of the elective seats in the House of Nationalities, but make up less than a third of the population. Yet the 2010 election results did not prove to be a boon for minority representation in the House of Nationalities (Table 1). This is likely a consequence of the inevitable geographic distortions caused by plurality voting, which assists minority groups only in the particular districts where a minority forms a majority in that small geographic area.

It is widely accepted that some of the best electoral systems for ensuring fair representation of minorities are variations of PR. Nelson Mandela, for example, was determined that South Africa should replace its winner-take-all system in favor of PR during that country’s transition to all-race elections in the early 1990s, precisely to ensure that the white minority and other smaller ethnic groups could achieve representation in the South African legislature. Yet surprisingly, in Myanmar, it is ethnic minority parties who most oppose the proposed adoption of PR.

The minority parties’ concerns center broadly on two points. First, despite the 2010 election results, several spokespeople for ethnic minorities argue that, due to the geographic concentration of minorities in the outer reaches of the country, plurality voting guarantees representation to minority ethnic groups that perhaps PR would not.

The main opposition party, Suu Kyi’s NLD, opposes changing from the current plurality system. The NLD is reported to believe that the PR proposal could sideline smaller ethnic parties. Ba Shin, an MP from the Rakhine National Development Party and a member of the Rakhine ethnic minority that makes up 3% to 4% of Myanmar’s population, claimed that national “unity will be impaired if this system [PR] is imposed because ethnic peoples and their parties are opposing the PR system. This fact should be considered seriously as well as the principle of the majority rule and minority right.” Sai Poung Nap, general secretary of the Wa Democratic Party, expressed his opposition to PR under a similar rationale, stating, “Wa people want to focus on Wa issues and likewise all other ethnic groups.” 

The logic of this visceral opposition is that some minorities make up such a small percentage of the population that they would not be guaranteed many seats under PR, especially if it was used in the upper house (where the threshold would necessarily be higher). The perception that PR would disadvantage minorities is so strong that some ethnic minority parties have boycotted legislative debates over PR.

A second objection centers on the characterization of PR as severing connections between candidates and constituents by making elections innately party- rather than candidate-centric. For example, exiled Burmese academic BD Prakesh writes that “[e]thnic people want to choose their own candidate to be their MP and they want to choose people they know.”

In fact, both of these concerns about PR—that PR will not facilitate the election of ethnic minority candidates and that PR favors party-centered over candidate-centered politics—are easily addressed.

One of the central characteristics of the broad and diverse family of PR electoral systems is that they enable even small minority groups—of all different kinds—to elect candidates representative of their opinions, values and interests. The threshold to win seats in a 330-member elective legislative assembly such as Myanmar’s could be as low as 0.3% of the national vote, and lower still if the size of the body rose to 400 or more, like the 0.25% threshold in South Africa.

Another approach to moving to PR would be to use a form of the fair representation voting plans that FairVote has proposed for the United States, which use candidate-based forms of PR. For example, five adjoining single-member districts could be combined into a single five-seat district, and the “open ticket” system could be used, in which voters vote for an individual candidate, with that vote counting both for the candidate and the party. Seats would be ultimately allocated to parties based on proportional representation and filled in order of the parties’ most popular candidates. See Katrina vanden Heuvel’s op-ed in the Washington Post for more information on FairVote’s proposals.

Furthermore, while the current plurality voting system in Myanmar facilitates minority representation for those ethnic minorities whose populations are extremely geographically concentrated, as is the case with the Wa people, it does not guarantee proportional representation of minorities, generally. The Wa people make up 0.16% of the population of Myanmar, but most live in a tiny region in the north of the Shan state. They elected two MPs to the House of Representatives in 2010. For other minorities, however, the story is not quite so rosy. Moderate-sized indigenous minorities like the Kayin, Shan and Mon, as well as immigrant minorities (Chinese and Indian) are underrepresented or unrepresented in the current plurality voting system—at least if representation is over-simplistically equated with ethnically-based political parties. PR could better represent these mid-sized minority groups and treat all minorities (and the majority) fairly.

As well, PR could better reflect diversity of opinion among members of ethnic groups—especially those like the Kayin, Shan and Mon, who each make up several percent of the population—by facilitating the election of multiple candidates and/or parties representing the same ethnic group, without jeopardizing the existence of ethnic parties. In this way, representation of all Burmese could be enhanced, with fewer Burmese votes wasted.

PR is adaptable enough to incorporate reserved seats for ethnic minorities who might vote largely for an ethnic party or candidate but, due to their small numbers, would not reach the necessary vote threshold to win a seat. Reserved seats might be a better alternative for Burma than the compromise plan Zin proposed in the face of opposition from ethnic minorities. Zin suggested using PR for the regions while maintaining plurality voting in the states. Determining which ethnic minorities receive reserved seats in the legislature will be a difficult task, but one well worth it for the gains in representation to all Burmese.

Regarding the concern that PR would render elections excessively party-focused to the detriment of voters’ personal ties to candidates, it should be noted that PR is not inherently party-centric. It is true that many PR systems, especially in continental Europe, use a party list version of PR. However, this is a function of local conditions in Europe; PR can be implemented by methods that place less emphasis on party, such as through an open ticket system as discussed above.

Even less party-centric in allocating seats is a candidate based-form of PR known as “Mixed Member Proportional” (MMP), which is used in New Zealand. Under MMP, each voter gets two votes: a party vote and a candidate vote. The system has the advantage of maintaining individual districts with members to represent their constituencies while also ensuring that the legislature, in the aggregate, reflects the preferences of the nation.*  

Indeed, New Zealand’s MMP may be a good model for Myanmar, as New Zealand’s electoral system is tailored to provide representation to the Maori people, the country’s indigenous minority population. In New Zealand, several seats in the legislature (currently 7 out of 70) are reserved for Maori people. A separate voter register is maintained for Maori seats, and Maori voters may choose to vote in the reserved seats or in the general seats. 

The ulterior motives of the USDP?

Critiques about PR and minority representation in Myanmar likely mask the true underlying problem: misgivings about the motives of the ruling USDP, which came out in support of PR early in the debates. This move raised suspicion among other parties because the USDP has the most to lose in the 2015 election under the current plurality system, and could see its prospects improve if PR were implemented.

A complicating factor for the 2015 election—and any debates about changing the voting system before then—is that Suu Kyi’s extremely popular National League for Democracy (NLD) will contest and likely win most seats, at least under existing plurality voting rules. The NLD did not run in 2010; sources conflict on whether the party boycotted the election or was not allowed to participate. The absence of a large industry of pollsters in Myanmar notwithstanding, we have some idea about what will happen in 2015 based on the results of the 2012 by-elections. The by-elections, held to fill vacant parliamentary seats, were a landslide for the NLD: it won all (100%) 37 vacant seats in the House. There is a sense that the NLD will romp home into government under plurality voting in the 2015 general election, displacing the USDP and the military junta that refused to give up power in 1990.

The public response to the USDP’s support of PR is thus one of intense suspicion. Protests have been held against PR. One hundred people turned out in Yangon—a significant number in a country where protests are only recently, and still cautiously, tolerated. One of the protestors, Kyi Linn from Mass Movement Acceleration Network, expressed the suspicion present in Myanmar about the USDP: “I think by using the PR system, the ruling party wants to change the outcome because they don’t have much chance of winning the election.” Similarly, Dr. Nyo Tun wrote that PR would:

…entrench special interests in the parliament and create a political impasse, at the very moment when the nation needs general consensus to keep reforms moving quickly and smoothly. In Burma, where many of those interests — namely, faith-based, economic and military — are closely related to each other, they could become an overpowering political presence in the government, leaving the nation’s people stranded.

This suspicion is understandable, and political science literature encourages us to be cautious about the motives of governing parties facing almost certain electoral defeat. The prevailing understandings of the evolution of electoral systems in Europe emphasizes that reform from plurality voting to PR is often an attempt by an incumbent party that fears large electoral losses to mitigate its losses. That is, we should be aware that the USDP’s motives in any debate over reform are likely tied to minimizing its potentially massive losses to the NLD in 2015 by moving away from winner-take-all.

Nonetheless, PR cannot be legally manipulated by the USDP to receive more seats than its vote share mandates. Surely, assuming the absence of vote tampering and suppression, the USDP ought to receive some seats proportional to how many Burmese vote for the party? Fair representation of all minorities requires us to value USDP voters just as much as other voters.

A proportional representation system has the potential to provide for much fairer representation of the Burmese than plurality voting. It is true that PR might mitigate USDP’s potential losses, but it would lose the fair amount of seats, in proportion to its electoral performance. There are few—legal—ways the USDP could manipulate PR to ensure they win a majority of seats in the absence of a majority of voter support. Furthermore, PR would promote more equitable representation of minorities than plurality voting by giving all sizeable minorities representation in proportion to their vote, rather than relying on the distorting vagaries of population concentration. To this end, we encourage the Myanmar House of Representatives to endorse a PR plan.



* PR may even be used in elections without political parties. American fair representation systems, such as ranked choice voting (or “single transferable vote”), cumulative voting and limited voting, can even be run in nonpartisan elections because they are based on voting only for candidates.

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