Analysis

Strong Rivalries Shape Politics in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

By Min Aung Khine 24 August 2020

With less than three months until people vote for a new government, it will be interesting to see how the general election turns out in Rakhine State, which has been gripped by armed conflicts and rivalries between local parties.

Thirteen political parties including the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), the Arakan National Party (ANP), the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) and the Arakan Front Party (AFP) have registered to run in November.

The Rakhine State Election Sub-commission said it plans to open nearly 2,600 polling stations in Rakhine, which has some 1.64 million voters.

Challengers in the ring 

The ANP, a major party in Rakhine State, has chosen younger candidates instead of prominent politicians like U Oo Hla Saw and U San Kaw Hla, who is the current speaker of the Rakhine State parliament.

The ALD, which is a historically strong party, has also chosen younger and educated candidates instead of seasoned politicians like U Aye Tha Aung.

Voters cast ballots in a 2018 by-election in Rathedaung Township. / Min Aung Khine / The Irrawaddy

The AFP, led by the son of Dr. Aye Maung, who is currently imprisoned on a high treason conviction, is also building up momentum based on his electoral victory as an independent candidate over other parties in 2018 by-election in Rathedaung Township.

“The rivalry will be quite intense. People in different areas support different parties. So, they may win in their strongholds,” the chairman of Kyaukphyu Rural Development Association, U Tun Kyi told The Irrawaddy.

ANP vs. AFP 

The AFP will field 42 candidates in the November election. AFP vice chairman U Kyaw Zaw Oo said that its main rival is the ANP. The AFP looks to represent the voices of the people rather than aspiring to hold office in Rakhine State, he asserted.

“We need a voice to speak up boldly for Rakhine people during this stormy period as a result of the fighting. We mainly intend to have lawmaker[s] … back up that voice,” he said.

Analysts suggest that it will be a tightly contested race between the two local parties in northern Rakhine. One of the ANP leaders, U Tun Aung Kyaw, is confident that the ANP can secure electoral victory if elections can be held in northern Rakhine, where government troops are fighting a Rakhine ethnic armed group, the Arakan Army (AA).

As it is likely that a coalition government may emerge at the Union level after the 2020 poll, the ANP is hoping that it will be able to take the helm of the Rakhine State government then.

Meanwhile, three of its members have submitted resignations to join the AFP and contest the November election on its ticket. But the ANP rejected their resignations, and as the Political Parties Registration Law bars individuals from being a member of two parties, the three will have to run as independent candidates.

Arakan National Party candidates campaign before the 2015 general election. / Min Aung Khine / The Irrawaddy

NLD vs. ALD

The ruling party NLD will run candidates in all the constituencies across Rakhine State, according to vice chairman U Soe Lay of the NLD Rakhine State chapter.

He declined to answer when asked how many seats the party thinks it can win in Rakhine State, and which party it thinks will be the main rival. Analysts suggest that the NLD’s main rivals will be the ANP and the AFP in northern Rakhine and the ALD in southern Rakhine.

The NLD enjoys widespread support in Thandwe, Gwa, Taungup, Yanbye and Manaung townships in southern Rakhine where the ALD has fielded new faces.

Dr. Tin Mar Aung, a former personal secretary of NLD chairwoman Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, will run for a seat representing Taungup Township in the Rakhine State parliament on the ticket of the ALD.

“I’m ethnically Rakhine. I am also engaged in surveys in Mrauk-U, and serve in the Rakhine Welfare Association. I know what is happening in Rakhine. … So, I decided to contest in Rakhine State so that I can take an active part [in political affairs],” she said.

Her NLD rival in Taungup Constituency 2 is Rakhine State NLD Central Executive Committee member U Min Aung, a former state municipal affairs minister who is currently a lawmaker in the Rakhine State parliament. The rivalry has already drawn the widespread attention of political analysts before the race begins.

ALD General Secretary U Myo Kyaw said the party assigned Dr. Tin Mar Aung to run in Taungup to post a new milestone in the history of the Rakhine parties.

“Rakhine parties have never won in places like Thandwe District in successive periods. We considered the situation and we assigned Dr. Tin Mar Aung because we believe we will be able to reach a new milestone in the political history of Rakhine with her candidacy,” U Myo Kyaw told The Irrawaddy.

NLD chairwoman Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speaks to local people on the campaign trail in Taungup Township before the 2015 general election. / Min Aung Khine / The Irrawaddy

The NLD faces certain challenges. Local people have a negative view of the NLD government due to the ongoing conflict between government troops and the AA. NLD Central Information Unit secretary Monywa Aung Shin admitted that the party is unlikely to repeat its 2015 victory in Rakhine this time.

“It is likely we will have to struggle in all regions including Rakhine in this year’s election,” he told The Irrawaddy.

The NLD was unable to secure a single seat in northern Rakhine in 2015, but managed to achieve success in the southern part of the state, securing a seat in the Upper House, four seats in the Lower House and nine seats in the Rakhine State parliament, including the Chin ethnic affairs minister position.

Political infighting

The ALD was established before the 1990 elections. In 2013, the party merged with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, which was founded before 2010 elections, in response to demand from Rakhine communities. The new party, the ANP, which was the result of a merger between the two, won the most seats in the 2015 poll in Rakhine State.

Following the infighting within the party, a faction left the ANP and re-established the ALD in 2017. ANP chairman Dr. Aye Maung also submitted his resignation, and was working to establish a new party known as the AFP when he was arrested and given long-term imprisonment under high treason charges for remarks deemed to be supporting the AA. His son has since then led the AFP.

Public interest low 

Public interest in the coming election has declined due to several factors including the imprisonment of Dr. Aye Maung, the NLD government’s Rakhine State policy, and the poor performance of Rakhine State government, said some locals.

But other locals disagree. They said the fact that parties have fielded new candidates has attracted public attention.

However, hundreds of thousands of villagers in northern Rakhine do not have time to check voting lists and their voting rights. They only care that they are still alive when the day ends.

Internally displaced persons in Rakhine / The Irrawaddy

“There is no discussion of election among the grass-roots. There is no public interest. We will wait and see if people will change their minds when the election draws near,” said chairman U Maung Saw of Mayu Region Development Association in Rathedaung Township, whose rural areas have been the battleground for past few months.

Some Rakhine people have become fed up with the election process partly because of some who have entered politics for their personal benefit rather than their political beliefs, said director U Khaing Kaung San of the Wun Let Foundation.

“Taking a look at political parties, there are more candidates that want to be lawmakers than those who really want to do politics. As they are not interested in party politics, and are only competing with each other to become lawmakers. This makes me think that this could be the beginning of the destruction of politics in Rakhine State,” he said.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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