On October 16, when it took the stunning and sweeping decision to cancel most of the vote in Rakhine State on November 8, the Union Election Commission (UEC) disenfranchised an estimated 73 percent of Rakhine voters, in addition to the Rohingya who had been stripped of voting rights in 2015. The UEC justified its decision on the grounds that the election could be neither free nor fair because of ongoing armed conflict in the state. When critics asked why the elections had not been cancelled in war-stricken Paletwa, where security concerns are most acute, the UEC called off elections in parts of that Chin State town and restored them in a few village tracts in Rakhine.

Voters line up outside a polling station in Yangon, Myanmar. Nov. 8, 2015. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
Voters line up outside a polling station in Yangon, Myanmar. Nov. 8, 2015. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

The UEC’s decision will leave elected representation from Rakhine State, formerly known as Arakan, at both the national and state level seriously depleted, with only 16 of the current 29 parliamentary seats occupied by Rakhine legislators (from all parties) at the national level and only 14 of 34 seats in the state parliament occupied at all. In most of the townships where elections can still be held, the majority of polling stations will be in urban areas, with no polling stations in most of the wards and village tracts, leaving rural areas at a particular disadvantage.

Election Ruling Disadvantages Rakhine’s Ethnic Minorities

The UEC’s poll cancellations have raised an outcry from ethnic minority parties, especially the Rakhine parties. They see this as a blatant power grab by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party as most of the cancellations are in middle and northern Rakhine State where the ethnic minority Arakan National Party (ANP) dominates. The areas in southern Rakhine State, where elections will go ahead, tend to be NLD strongholds.

As a consequence of the UEC’s actions, the Rakhine parties, which currently comprise the largest ethnic minority elected representation in the national and state assemblies, could become insignificant at both levels. The NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would share most of the few remaining seats for Rakhine State at the national and state levels. On the other hand, USIP research suggests that many voters in those areas could be angry enough at the government’s treatment of Rakhine State to vote instead for the ANP or other minor Rakhine parties, leaving the NLD’s representation from the state depleted at both the national and state levels. Ironically, this could result in the USDP and appointed military representatives taking the majority of seats in Rakhine’s state parliament, despite the military’s scorched-earth warfare against the Arakan Army (AA) rebels who are fighting for greater autonomy for Rakhine State.

At a recent press conference, Zaw Htay, a spokesman in the president’s office, said most of the elections cancellations had been recommended by the military and the General Administration Department in the President’s office, which is responsible for local administration nationwide, on the grounds that it would be difficult to hold elections in areas ravaged by the conflict that has been raging in Rakhine State over the past year. The NLD government, he said, had recommended fewer cancellations, implying that the extent and location of these cancellations were not motivated by NLD political considerations, as critics claim. Adding to the confusion, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said that there were “discrepancies between” the UEC’s cancellations and the recommendations made by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces. Both statements could be correct. The UEC received different lists from the military and the government, and it was the one to announce the cancellations.

Violence, COVID Hamper Election Administration

Whether the motivation behind the cancellation of elections was political or practical, violence between the AA and the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State and southern Chin State has left much of these areas without functioning local administrative structures to manage elections. It would be difficult, if not impossible, under the current circumstances to hold elections in the constituencies where they have been cancelled, and perhaps even in some constituencies where they have not been cancelled. Further, a statewide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and mobile internet restrictions have made it virtually impossible for candidates to campaign. With voter turnout likely to be seriously depressed in Rakhine State as a result of the conflict, the state’s next elected representatives will speak for only a small percentage of the population.

The AA stands to gain the most from this situation. Its leaders have made no secret of their contempt for the existing political structures, which they have worked systematically to undermine. As a supplement to their military campaign against the state and in an effort to extend control over the population, the AA has sought to decimate local administration by intimidating officials, taking them hostage, and placing its own supporters in charge. In a blatant display of disrespect for the election process itself, the AA recently took three NLD candidates in Rakhine State hostage, demanding in return the release of suspected AA supporters who had been arrested by the government. It would be no surprise then if the AA were to deliberately target and intimidate voters and poll managers in those areas of Rakhine State where elections will be held. Reduced Rakhine representation in the elected structures of government would only further the AA’s objectives. 

It is not difficult to see why truncated elections in Rakhine State would intensify the level of conflict. “Armed conflict may get worse, but there will be no MPs who can talk about stopping the war,” said ANP lawmaker and member of the party’s policy committee, Pe Than. “Human rights violations and war crimes may then increase,” he added.

For those in Rakhine State who wish to pursue greater autonomy through negotiations for a federal system, channels for political discussion will be seriously narrowed by the dearth of representation from the state in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw. Armed resistance will become the more popular route to greater autonomy, handing the AA an election victory in the form of a richer recruitment base.

The AA’s ambition to build a larger force was previewed on October 14 in a public WeChat account in China, which reported the group’s plans to recruit an additional 50,000 fighters, opening recruitment to other ethnic nationalities across the country.

Getting Myanmar Democracy Back on Track

If the NLD were to win another national majority in the November 8 election, this victory will be tarnished by the fact that the conflict in Rakhine State is spinning out of control and even fewer doors are now open to a political settlement. The situation could also become a serious crisis for the Tatmadaw, which is mired in a battle with an increasingly powerful ethnic army on Myanmar’s western border, while other nonstate armed groups gain control over the eastern border.

Therefore, the real significance of the cancellation of elections in Rakhine State is the degree to which it will intensify conflict with the AA, presenting an immediate crisis for the new government that could derail plans for reform and progress toward peace and prosperity for the rest of the nation. That the Rakhine elections had to be so widely cancelled should send a clear warning to Naypyitaw that the government’s current strategy against the AA is not working and it is imperative to open doors to a negotiated resolution.

One possible starting point for a political discussion with current elected Rakhine leaders, during the interim period between the elections and the seating of the new parliament, could be the idea of conducting a limited election to fill the empty Rakhine seats as soon as possible in order to restore the elected representation the state deserves. This would require a concerted effort by both sides to eliminate or at least lower the level of conflict to allow peaceful, orderly elections. It might also be accompanied by a moratorium on hostage-taking by both sides as a prelude to a cease-fire.

The government in Naypyitaw should make a concerted effort to find a way to bring the AA into the peace process. This would provide a vehicle to begin serious discussions on the political outlines of an evolving federal system that provides greater autonomy to ethnic minorities. 

Without some peacebuilding initiatives by Naypyitaw—by civilian as well as military leaders—the conflict in Rakhine is likely to spiral further out of control, dragging the entire country into a crisis and making a resolution of the tragedy involving the Rohingya a distant dream. Until full Rakhine representation is restored, the 2020 election will remain incomplete and a worrisome sign of trouble on the road to democracy in Myanmar.

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