Guest Column

Myanmar’s Election a High-Stakes Game in War-Torn Rakhine State

By Ye Min Zaw 29 September 2020

No one would disagree that there’s an urgent need for a political solution to resolve the situation in Rakhine State.

The question is how and when the process of finding a political solution might begin. One of the extremely limited options would be having a free and fair election, from which democratic leaders could emerge and have the matter in their own hands. But does that mean having a democratic election would resolve the ongoing armed conflict? Recent history indicates otherwise.

Democracy for Myanmar

As Myanmar’s campaign for the 2020 election gains steam, debates are becoming stronger and harsher. Unlike the 2015 election, in which the central question was only how to oust the established elite, this time around the questions are more complex and interwoven.

The debate was kicked off with a no-vote campaign by some “netizens” who do not believe the election will bring a democratic regime accountable to the public. That argument is countered with a claim that this election resembles voting in the United States, choosing between Republicans and Democrats. However, we are voting for a democratic transition that needs to lay the foundation for representative democracy while 25 percent of the seats in Parliament are still controlled by unelected individuals under the 2008 Constitution. The elephant—the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military)—is still in the room, and now is not the best time to quarrel over voting or not voting.

When the global pandemic of COVID-19 arrived and the number of positive cases jumped, the question of whether the election should be postponed due to concerns over public health emerged. Strict restrictions on public gatherings and extremely limited campaign action would appear to undermine the integrity of a free and fair election.

While the whole nation is hotly debating this question, the people from northern Rakhine find themselves wondering why their fellow citizens are so serious about a procedural issue while we are here are being forced from our houses and sent into hiding as we struggle to save our own lives amid an ongoing war.

Democracy for Rakhine

The recent track record of democratic governance in Rakhine is visibly poor. After the very first election in 2010, Rakhine State faced a deadly intercommunal conflict that resulted in more than 100,000 Internally Displaced Persons. The ethnic Rakhine were demonized along with the majority Buddhist population. Then the Arakan National Party won a majority in the 2015 general election at the state level, but it was unable to govern due to constitutional limitations and a political dispute with the National League for Democracy (NLD), who won a landslide nationwide.

Those situations paved the way—perhaps by design—for young newcomers to bring military conflict to Rakhine State. Key mobilization tools in that effort were anti-Burmese sentiment along with opposition to the democratic government that shrewdly capitalized on the inability of elected politicians (under hegemonic Burmese domination) to govern their own land.

The community has also been dissatisfied with the performance of political parties, due to internal divisions and other factors within the state. The entrenched perception is that people’s voices are not being heard through the formal political process, and as that perception has become stronger it has been much easier to build support for populist violence. The NLD government has been unable to overcome those strong community perceptions. That’s true even though some significant moves were made to bring different possible solutions to the table.

At the same time, international pressure is mounting over the exodus of the Muslim community in 2016-17. Now, even the ethnic Rakhine who backed the Tatmadaw’s actions against Muslims are seeing that their “heroes” have turned their backs. This would be another reason for a Rakhine layman to look for new heroes to provide protection from perceived external threats—firstly the threat of the Muslim population and now the threat posed by the Burmese. Indeed, both perceived threats have existed for a long time in the siege mentality of the ethnic Rakhine.

The current threat of the possible disenfranchisement of large numbers of people from six or seven townships due to the COVID-19 restrictions is only exacerbating the undergoing situation. Disenfranchisement is not a new issue. Indeed, the Muslim community already lost its voting right after the 2015 election. In this sense, the 2020 election is just an extension of an unhappy past. The Union Election Commission is sending the message that voting is a precious civil right, but what does that mean for those who have lost their fundamental rights to life? Is the right to vote is greater than the right to life?

How do people imagine democracy?

I’m making these points just to make clear that public perception and trust of democratic transition would be at a nadir because the public’s dreams for the post-election era would be diminished. It would be very difficult for people to imagine what their lives would look like after the election.

Would they still dream of having their own government through elections? Would they still trust in democratic processes in general? Of course, the first question is very much linked to all the arrangements of the peace process and constitutional reform that require a longer time. But is there no intermediate measure at all?

Under these circumstances, asking whether the election will happen in Rakhine is a superficial question. How the general election might be beneficial to the people of Rakhine is the key. How might ballots eliminate bullets in civil war settlements, like the recent situation in Rakhine?

The answer depends on how political actors and war-waging armies respond. Elections, like war, are a high-stakes game. The answer is very much needed by the people from northern Rakhine. But the events in the recent past indicate a very different direction. We can still hope—as hope is the only thing ordinary citizens possess in addition to their ballots—that politicians who either have power or influence will ensure that the election process is not only free and fair but also conciliatory. This could be an additional requirement of the election in the war-torn region. Only by taking people’s imagination into consideration would the goal of a conciliatory election be possible.

Ye Min Zaw studies international development with a focus on peace processes, transitional issues and Rakhine affairs.

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