Myanmar’s NLD Says Election Law Bars Hasty Vote in Areas Where Nov. 8 Poll Canceled

By Nyein Nyein 21 December 2020

The country’s election law rules out the possibility of voting being held any time soon in areas where the Nov. 8 election was canceled, according to the ruling party’s spokesman, despite a lull in fighting in western Myanmar, where calls are growing to allow affected townships to go to the polls.

Shortly before the Nov. 8 general election, Myanmar’s electoral body, the Union Election Commission (UEC), canceled voting in all constituencies in nine townships in northern Rakhine State, citing security concerns. The move caused some 1.2 million voters to lose their right to participate in the general election, which is held every five years. Since the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar’s military began an informal truce last month, affected locals have called for voting to be held before the new Parliament convenes on Feb. 1.

However, Dr. Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy, said legal obstacles stand in the way of holding elections. “The election must be held in accordance with the law,” said. “The main obstacle is that the election law prohibits holding a by-election within a year prior to or following [a general] election. Therefore, to overcome this quickly, a parliamentary session would first have to be called to amend this election law [provision].”

Politicians from Rakhine say voting in the affected townships should be held no later than Jan. 31, when the current parliamentary session ends.

U San Kyaw Hla, the Rakhine State parliament speaker, said the state “is ready” to hold the election. He added that no progress on the situation had been made despite repeated calls from local politicians.

U Thu Rein Htut, the secretary of Rakhine State’s election subcommission, told The Irrawaddy last week that the state “has the potential” to hold the election, but was awaiting an order from the UEC.

He acknowledged that ensuring the accuracy of voter lists posed a challenge, as many registered voters are scattered across internally displaced person (IDP) camps, adding that the lists would have to be rechecked for each village.

The UEC has not made any announcement on when voting will be held, and The Irrawaddy was not able to contact the commission for comment at the time of publication.

Daw Khin Saw Wai, an incumbent Lower House parliamentarian from the Arakan National Party representing Rathedaung, said voting could be held before the third week of January if the UEC agreed. She registered to recontest her constituency in November’s election, but Rathedaung was among the townships where voting was canceled.

She said that if the UEC only agrees to a formal by-election, which could take a year or 18 months to be held, voters will lack representation in Parliament, depriving them of a key channel for raising their concerns.

Intensified fighting between the AA and Myanmar’s military since November 2018 has displaced more than 230,000 people and resulted in hundreds of civilians casualties and many arbitrary arrests.

The AA is currently holding three NLD candidates (two of them sitting lawmakers) whom it detained while they were campaigning in Taungup, southern Rakhine State, on Oct. 14. The NLD has called for the release of the trio.

The ethnic armed group on Nov. 12 called on the Myanmar military and government to hold elections before Dec. 31 in nine northern Rakhine townships where voting in the Nov. 8 general election was canceled for security reasons. It said in a statement that voters in the affected areas had lost their rights. Within hours of the statement being issued, Myanmar’s military welcomed the AA’s request, paving the way for bilateral meetings.

AA and Tatmadaw representatives met online and in person within a month and agreed to collaborate on security to make voting possible in Rakhine. Since then, some 70,000 IDPs have returned to their villages, according to the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a local relief group.

“Some have returned to work on their farms to harvest rice, but others are still not able to return,” Daw Khin Saw Wai said.

She insisted the election in northern Rakhine “is currently delayed”, so any rescheduled voting should be considered part of the general election, and not a by-election.

However, Dr. Myo Nyunt said, the existing law does not allow for re-scheduled voting in this context.

Certain cases of voting being suddenly called off on election day for security reasons or due to a natural disaster might allow for such delayed voting, he said.

Despite the pause in fighting, a lot of information is needed before “free and fair” elections can be held in the affected areas, he said, citing the need for administrative officials to do electoral work and guarantee candidates’ ability to freely hold campaign rallies. Some 200 village heads in the conflict areas have resigned from their positions during the past few years, he said. Without village administrative officers, the formation of local UEC bodies—one of the steps needed to prepare for the election—could not proceed.

He added that the temporary “pause in fighting in the state does not guarantee for a free and fair election that reflects the people’s desires.”

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