Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) said its recent decision to cancel voting entirely in 15 townships and in parts of 41 others—mostly in ethnic areas—ahead of next month’s general election was based on security concerns and the recommendations of various authorities, including the military.
Since the UEC announced the cancellations on Oct. 16, questions have been raised about why some areas that are considered relatively safe for voting were excluded from the Nov. 8 vote. Conversely, voting has been allowed to proceed in other areas that have seen intense fighting between armed groups and the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw), such as Paletwa in Chin State.
Responding to the criticism at a press briefing on Tuesday, an official from the electoral body said the commission is now reviewing the situation on the ground in certain areas, including Paletwa and Ann Township in Rakhine State, to determine whether voting can be held there.
UEC spokesman U Myint Naing told reporters in Naypyitaw that while the commission would prefer to hold elections in every constituency, it had no choice but to postpone voting in some areas based on the recommendations of the ministries of the Union Government Office, Home Affairs, Defense and others.
Security-related ministries and agencies such as the Tatmadaw-run ministries of Defense and Home Affairs, and the General Administration Department (GAD) under the Union Government Office told the UEC they could not take responsibility for the safety for the electoral process in the excluded areas.
“Voting in the areas which are currently unsafe and at risk was postponed, based on the respective ministries’ recommendations,” U Myint Naing said.
“The UEC does not make its decisions alone,” he said, adding that it had also consulted with the ministries of Health, Education and Immigration to ensure the electoral process goes smoothly amid the COVID-19 epidemic.
He said the ministries and the respective township electoral sub-commissions had been consulted twice during the past few months. Before announcing its decision last Friday, the spokesman said, the UEC re-confirmed the safety and risk assessments for those areas. Similar decisions were made in 2015, U Myint Naing said. While many of the village tracts in constituencies in conflict-torn Rakhine State were excluded because they were deemed unable to hold the election, some village tracts in other areas were excluded because they no longer existed, or because the GAD was unable to compile voter lists there, he said.
The UEC spokesman said a decision on voting in Paletwa, where voting has not been canceled, and Ann, parts of which are affected, would be announced soon.
Observers have decried the fact that voting has been approved in Paletwa, the scene of rampant fighting between the military and the Arakan Army, while conflict-free areas like Myebon and Pauktaw in Rakhine State and Mong Kung in Shan State are not able to hold voting, and have asked the UEC to explain its reasoning.
U Myint Naing said the commission would review its decisions in areas where the security-related institutions and electoral sub-commissions advise that the excluded areas can hold elections safely.
However, whether the UEC’s reviews will be concluded in time to allow residents in the affected areas to vote is unclear.
Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said following the UEC press conference that some of the areas excluded from voting by the commission were different from the military’s proposed areas, but did not elaborate.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is strong in Rakhine State’s Ann Township. No voting will take place in Ann’s Constituency No. 2, while the election has been canceled in most areas in Ann’s Constituency No. 1.
U Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker from Myebon Constituency, which is one of the nine Rakhine State townships to have voting canceled for the Nov. 8 election, said, “We heard a few village tracts in Ann are now likely to be included in the poll, because they are military-stronghold areas.”
He said it would be good if the UEC reviewed its decision and removed some areas from the cancellation list. He said making cancellations on a township-wide basis had a huge impact on those areas’ political representation. (Due to the cancellation, nine Rakhine townships will have no Lower House MPs and will also lose their 18 state MPs.) He added that if the UEC only adds a few village tracts or wards to the list of constituencies where voting is allowed, it won’t help much.
He also expected that voting would be canceled in some village tracts in Paletwa if the UEC made a new announcement.
As his constituency, Myebon, had seen no clashes, except for some shooting from a military battalion based in Ann, the UEC should allow it to participate in the election, he said.
U Pe Than, who has served as an Arakan National Party (ANP) lawmaker since 2010, is known as an outspoken figure in the Union Parliament. His plan to re-contest his seat in November has been derailed by the UEC’s decision to exclude his constituency.
He said some 75 percent of Rakhine State residents had lost their right to vote in the 2020 election due to the UEC’s decision, which he said would also leave the new state parliament weakened, as it would have fewer elected members. It would not have enough voices to represent all Rakhine State residents, as 1.2 million of the state’s more than 1.6 million eligible voters would be excluded from voting.
In 2015, the ANP won a majority of Rakhine State parliament seats in those townships where voting has been canceled this year. It now has 14 seats left to contest. U Pe Than said the party will now focus on winning those seats in November.
Ethnic parties have said the UEC’s choice of areas to exclude from voting favors the ruling NLD. The UEC spokesman rejected the accusation, repeating his assertion that the decision was based on security concerns alone.
A total of 5,831 candidates from 92 political parties have registered to contest the general election on Nov. 8. Initially, 6,969 candidates were approved, but the commission later rejected nine based on their citizenship status and 1,129 others who were registered under the since-dissolved United Democratic Party.
The electoral body said that as the election will be held during the COVID-19 pandemic, it had prepared guidelines for voters to follow in order to ensure their safety.
Recapping the tasks the UEC had completed since last year to organize the election, ranging from voter registration and early voting to voter awareness activities, U Myint Naing said the electoral process was almost 90 percent complete and urged voters to either cast advance ballots or vote at polling stations on election day.
“Voters casting ballots at polling stations on election day can feel safer than if they were going to the market or riding the bus,” he said.
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