Election 2020

Canceling Voting Will Boost Violence, Warn Rakhine Leaders

By Nyein Nyein 3 November 2020

Following the cancelation of voting in northern Rakhine State by Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) over security concerns, only 44 percent of state parliamentary seats can be filled after the Nov. 8 election.

The future of the conflict-torn state after the poll is being discussed since many residents are unable to participate.

In mid-October, the UEC canceled voting in full or part of 57 townships nationwide. Nine whole Rakhine townships where voting is canceled form a stronghold for the Arakan National Party (ANP). Parts of Sittwe, the state capital, and seven southern townships where the voting can proceed form 27 out of the 61 Rakhine constituencies available in the Union and state parliaments.

The state parliament has 33 seats, excluding the 25 percent of seats reserved for the military.

However, in the 2020 general election, only 14 state parliamentary seats will be contested, omitting 75 percent of the state’s 1.6 million voters.

Ko Wong Aung, an ANP central committee member, said the cancelations challenge political representation with less than half of the seats being filled. He was due to stand for the Upper House in Minbya and Myebon townships but voting has been canceled.

“How can the parliament function?” he asked.

Politicians and observers say moderate Rakhine voices are “being wiped out”, which will widen the space for people to find armed rather than political solutions.

The Arakan National Party travels by water to Kyaukphyu from Sittwe to campaign on Nov. 1. / Than Naing / Facebook

“Moderate politicians who can contribute to establishing federalism are being wiped out. As the rights of Rakhine voters are diminishing, it will push them towards radical movements,” said Ko Wong Aung.

Intense competition had been expected between the ANP, National League for Democracy (NLD), military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the ethnically Rakhine Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) and Arakan Front Party (AFP).

The ANP won a majority in the 2015 election with 22 state seats, proving especially strong in northern Rakhine, where voting has been canceled.

Last week, the ANP urged the UEC to allow voting in most areas, allowing more than 1.5 million state residents to vote. Ko Wong Aung said he hoped the new government will fill the remaining seats with by-elections.

The AFP, led by the son of imprisoned politician Dr. Aye Maung, was expected to present the largest challenge to the ANP. One of the ALD’s candidates is Daw Tin Mar Aung, a former aide to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is standing in Taungup Township in southern Rakhine. In late October, southern Rakhine State became the center of election campaigning with the ANP traveling by water to hold large-scale rallies.

Different parties have demonstrated their support in the areas of Taungup where voting is taking place. Three NLD candidates in Taungup have been held by the Arakan Army (AA) since Oct. 14.

The NLD’s popularity has fallen since 2015 and it has little chance of winning a majority across the whole state. Ethnic Rakhine parties have proved far more popular than external parties, like the NLD and USDP. The state government, led by an NLD-appointed chief minister, has been exposed as incompetent and lost further support.

ALD chairman U Kyaw Myint also criticized the UEC decision, saying no clashes have occurred in Pauktaw, where voting has been canceled. He questioned the government’s intention, “whether the voting was canceled in areas where the NLD has no chance of winning and whether the UEC favored the ruling party”. It is a claim shared by many ethnic politicians and rejected by the UEC.

Daw Htoot May, an Upper House lawmaker, said voters had backed ethnic-Rakhine parties in both the 2010 and 2015 general elections, but the 2008 Constitution had not been amended to allow them to form a state government. Now nine townships will have no representatives to voice their concerns.

The Arakan National Party campaigns in southern Rakhine State in late October. / Khin Saw Wai / Facebook

“The weaker the political representation, the more armed conflict,” she said, in reference to fighting with the AA.

The AA, which was formed in the Kachin Independence Army’s headquarters in Laiza, has tried to establish itself in Rakhine State since early 2015. The state’s residents have endured fighting, which intensified in late 2018, leaving more than 200,000 displaced and hundreds injured, killed or arrested. The government declared the AA a terrorist group in March.

Until October, frequent clashes occurred in northern Rakhine’s Kyauktaw, Minbya, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Ann townships, which also face COVID-19. Statewide stay-at-home orders are still in place to curb the spread of coronavirus.

While many areas of Myanmar this month will be focusing on the election results and COVID-19, Rakhine State faces the additional challenge of ongoing conflicts.

“After the election, the fighting will be severe,” said political analyst U Maung Maung Soe.

He said while no voting is possible across northern Rakhine State until a ceasefire is signed, people’s interest might shift to armed conflict, “adding further fuel to the fire”.

The Rakhine situation has deteriorated, said Daw Htoot May, an independent running for Yangon Region’s Rakhine ethnic affairs minister. She said unless the government and military acknowledge the existence of the AA, peace is impossible and hatred towards the government will grow.

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