How Are Myanmar’s Ethnic Parties Responding to the Cancellation of Voting in Conflict Areas?

By The Irrawaddy 31 October 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss how important the 2020 election is for ethnic parties and whether ethnic parties are being narrow-minded by engaging in politics based on regionalism and ethnic identity. Arakan National Party (ANP) candidate U Win Aung and Chin National League for Democracy Central Executive Committee member Cheery Zahau join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

My first question is to U Win Aung. Since the election has been canceled in northern Rakhine State, there are concerns that political options will diminish and only fighting will remain. At the same time, there is a question as to whether democratic elections can reduce clashes. Clashes intensified due to claims that, despite winning a majority in the Rakhine State parliament in the 2015 poll, the ANP was not able to form a government and had no authority. It seems the ANP enjoys popular support in constituencies where the election has been canceled. The ANP did not choose to boycott the election, but organized mass rallies in Taungup and Manaung townships. What is the view of the ANP on the November election?

Win Aung: Our voices were ignored in the Rakhine State parliament. There were many restrictions and challenges. Meanwhile, it can be said that clashes have intensified. But I don’t assume there was a cause and effect between these two. There are people who are fighting for federal democracy by all means, including armed revolution.

It is fair to say that the ANP, the third-strongest party in Myanmar, is politically moderate. Excluding moderate groups in the coming election is extremely unfortunate and risky for the political landscape of Myanmar. There is a need for dialogue between the ruling party and moderate groups to ensure good political results, including in the election itself.

Now [because the Union Election Commission (UEC) has canceled the election in certain constituencies], 72.5 percent of eligible voters [in Rakhine State], according to the UEC’s own data, are going to be disenfranchised. And only some 27 percent of eligible voters will be able to cast votes. How many of them will actually be able to their cast ballots remains in question. Their representation in the Parliament is also in question.

The government and the UEC should seriously reconsider the cancellation of the vote [in the affected areas] and try to ensure a free and fair election. The government should, with trust, respect, broadmindedness and strong political will—it is critical to have political will—negotiate with stakeholders including political parties in Rakhine State and work out a political framework in line with democratic norms that can satisfy the desires of ethnic people.

YN: There are criticisms that the electoral system under the 2008 Constitution is first-past-the-post voting, and only the major parties can form a government, and as a result there is no guarantee of equality and self-administration. There are calls for a switch to proportional representation [PR]. The military holds 25 percent of unelected seats in the Parliament; it also agrees with the suggestion of having chief ministers in ethnic minority regions elected, rather than appointed by the country’s president. How important is the 2020 election to ethnic parties in this political landscape?

Cheery Zahau: The 2020 election is critically important for ethnic parties. In 2010, the USDP won a majority and formed a government at the central and regional levels. In 2015, the NLD won a majority and formed a government at the central and regional levels.

After 10 years of democratization under the first-past-the-post electoral system, ethnic parties have suffered a lot of disadvantages. For example, in Rakhine State, as Ko Win Aung pointed out earlier, the winner makes all the decisions, leading to a lot of unnecessary problems on the ground. Local governments can do nothing under this centralized system. People have suffered the brunt of this. They lag behind politically, economically and socially. That’s why we are saying the winner-take-all system is not appropriate.

We could switch to PR, but in that case we need to discuss which PR system suits us best. For the time being, there is little chance to discuss this. Some say that because the military holds 25 percent of seats, the political parties should share the remaining 75 percent. The military will not hold those seats forever, and it will withdraw from politics at some point in the future.

Our country is a multiethnic country, and by switching to PR, there will be wider representation of ethnic groups in local parliaments and the Upper House. The voices of both the majority and minorities will be heard and there will be wider political representation. The electoral system in use does not support wider political participation. That’s why we are calling for a change.

If the strong parties have the necessary political will, there can be political power sharing, and there would not even be a need for a PR system. Ethnic parties are demanding that they choose the chief ministers of their own states. To ensure federalism, ethnic parties must have the right to take care of their own ethnic states. We are not saying that we want to take control of the entire country, but must have the right the handle the issues of our states. For example, we must be allowed to handle land issues and adopt the economic systems that suit our states.

Over the past 70 years, all the decisions have been made by the central government, but they have not solved the problems on the ground. Everyone knows about it, and I am not going to get into details here. That’s why we are saying ethnic parties need to win. The switch to a PR system amounts to making steps forward to federalism. Ethnic equality, self-determination and federal democracy are the ultimate goals of ethnic people, and this election is therefore important for us.

YN: If the NLD won the election at the national level again and appointed its chief minister to the Rakhine State government, how do you think the political landscape would shape up in Rakhine State after 2020?

WA: No matter which party wins the election, the question is how well the elected lawmakers can represent 27 percent of the voters. Regarding self-determination, genuine federalism and equality, after 70 years of civil war, so-called democratization started in 2010. There are restrictions and challenges to the practicing of democracy and there have been violations of democratic norms. It is quite ugly. About the parliamentary landscape, if the military retains seats in the Parliament even after the shift to the new electoral system, it will only lead to disgraceful results.

More than 600 civilians have been killed or injured in fierce clashes in Rakhine State, and more than 220,000 people have been displaced by armed violence. It is quite a shame. Rakhine State in fact has great geographical advantages. It’s located militarily and economically in a strategic position. China, India and other countries have invested billions of dollars in the state.

It will prove costly for the country to make a hasty decision to cancel the voting without trying to find effective political solutions. And it also amounts to pushing the moderate groups toward a more radical stance. The ruling class and the major political parties should make an absolute guarantee, for example, issuing a roadmap that they will do this and that for the sake of ethnic parties in next five years. They should try to conduct dialogue in a pragmatic, broad-minded and reliable manner in order to find solutions.

YN: Ma Cheery Zahau, there have been criticisms in the campaign period that ethnic parties are narrow-minded and only look at their region and ethnicity and do not look at the country overall. What is your response to this?

CZ: It is wrong to say that we ethnic parties are narrow-minded. What we are saying is we will improve our states first; we will improve the social and economic lives and the political awareness of the people in our states. The current political system is a top-down approach. We are calling for a bottom-up approach because we understand our own problems better.

It is not narrow-mindedness. It is called pragmatism. If the respective parties in respective regions and states improve their areas, there will be greater development. Though those at the top levels are talking about federalism, nothing can be done at the lower level. This is why we are calling for a bottom-up approach, which is the first step toward federalism.

Ethnic groups have made barely any progress in gaining either hard or soft power, including in the areas of the economy, military strength, politics, administration, religious buildings, culture and language. We were neglected for decades. We are calling for the rebuilding of our states with the aim of strengthening our states in all those aspects. That’s why we need to talk about ethnicity. It is not narrow-mindedness.

The Bamar people are far ahead of other ethnicities. To thrive as an ethnic group, they only need a democratic election. They have all the necessities as an ethnic group and only the governments will change. They are very far ahead of us. So, what we are saying is that we need to build ourselves. This is not a narrow-minded attitude. We are only saying it for the sake of our own ethnic people. It is just that some people have misunderstood it.

YN: Thank you for your insights.

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