Myanmar’s military regime has a plan for trying to establish its governing legitimacy next year: In August of 2023, the dictatorship, which overthrew a democratically elected government in early 2021, intends to hold sham elections. A critical piece of this strategy involves maneuvering Myanmar’s welter of small ethnic parties into taking part in the electoral process. Nowhere are the risks and uncertainties inherent in the generals’ plan more evident than in poor but economically strategic Rakhine State on Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh and India.
Long alienated from Burma’s central government and majority population, Rakhine has complex political dynamics that with the coup have changed dramatically amid shifting public opinion and the expanding influence of the Arakan Army (AA) — now one of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed organizations. The military has succeeded in luring some support in Rakhine but more broadly its efforts have triggered popular backlash and fragmentation within the state’s political elite. The evolution of these trends is likely to weigh heavily on the regime’s electoral plan. Consequently, understanding Rakhine’s political landscape today — and the influence of its history — is critical to contemplating Myanmar’s road ahead.
Rakhine’s political parties are now divided by their vision of the future: Will they engage with the junta’s election scheme? Or will they align with the popular new political power, the AA’s United League of Arakan (ULA), which has wrested much of the state’s local administration away from military control and will likely seek to block elections in the state?
The split follows years of rising resentment of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and of wrestling with the NLD and the military for self-governance and against Burman hegemony.
NLD Squanders Rakhine Support
During its struggle against military persecution following Myanmar’s 1988 rebellion, the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) was a years-long bastion of strength for its NLD ally and Aung San Suu Kyi.
When the previous military regime launched parliamentary elections in 2010, however, disagreement over the NLD’s decision to boycott the vote split the ALD. While most of the ALD followed the NLD’s lead, other Rakhine politicians, such as the Rakhine nationalists Dr. Aye Maung, Aye Nu Sein and U Hla Soe broke away to form the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP). It competed in the balloting and won a majority of Rakhine seats in the national and state parliaments.
Ahead of national elections in 2015, the RNDP, led by Dr. Aye Maung, and the ALD, led by U Aye Thar Aung, agreed to merge into a single party, the Arakan National Party (ANP), to improve their position vis-à-vis the large national parties, including the NLD. The ANP thereafter became Myanmar’s fourth largest party and dominated Rakhine State.
After the NLD’s landslide national victory in 2015, it placed NLD parliamentarians as chief ministers in all 14 state and regional governments including Rakhine, where the merged ANP had won a majority of seats in the state parliament. The NLD’s refusal to bend to the Rakhine public’s demand for an ANP chief minister erased years of NLD-ALD alliance, exacerbating a long-standing sense of political exclusion among many Rakhine people and sparking bitter competition between the two parties.
After 2015, factional strife among the top leaders of the ANP led eventually to a three-way split in the party. In 2017, the ALD reconstituted itself under its previous name. Another segment remained as the ANP but its chair, Dr. Aye Maung, resigned in November 2017 and with some of his fellow MPs proceeded in 2018 to form a new party, the Arakan Front Party (AFP). Despite their internal differences, all three harbored grievances against the NLD and its government.
NLD Pours Fuel on the Fire
Rakhine political antagonism against the NLD government over autonomy and perceptions of neglect rapidly accelerated with the government’s response to the conflict between the Arakan Army and the Sit-Tat, as the military is popularly known, that broke out in 2018. The conflict displaced more than 230,000 civilians, and seriously injured or killed nearly 1,000, including more than 170 children.
The NLD government backed the Sit-Tat’s effort to crush the AA and added the AA to its “terrorist list” despite credible evidence of widespread Sit-Tat war crimes. The NLD-led government also excluded the AA from its landmark peace conference; blocked humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected people; and instituted the world’s longest internet shutdown in much of the state. In April 2020, NLD chair and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi expressed gratitude for soldiers fighting the AA.
Then, weeks before the 2020 November general election, the NLD’s Union Election Commission cancelled voting in northern and central Rakhine State where support for Rakhine parties was strongest, a move that disenfranchised approximately three-fourths of Rakhine State’s eligible voters. With much of the Burman public outside of Rakhine openly supporting the NLD and Sit-Tat on social media, division between Rakhine and Burman populations deepened considerably and popular support for the AA grew.
The result has been Rakhine indifference toward the resistance and support for the junta among some political elites. Many parties, including the ALD, condemned the military take-over; the ANP and AFP — the largest parties — remained silent.
Conflicting Attitudes Toward Junta Regime
The junta has eagerly exploited these internal tensions, even offering positions on its governing council to some Rakhine parties on the very day of the coup. While the ALD and AFP spurned the offer, the ANP, Rakhine’s largest, accepted and Daw Aye Nu Sein, the Arakan National Party vice chair, spokesperson and policy board member, joined the national-level coup council. Zaw Aye Maung, another top ANP leader, accepted a position on February 13 as a deputy ethnic affairs minister under the junta government, ignoring a February 7 joint statement in opposition by 47 Rakhine civil society organizations.
The Rakhine public protested that the ANP had lost credibility; the party contended it was acting to “protect Rakhine interests” by demanding ministerial positions, including chair of the Arakan State Administrative Council.
In June, with its demands ignored for months, the ANP announced that it would cease working with the junta’s governing council. The ANP chair claimed that Vice Chair Aye Nu Sein’s continued work with the junta reflected personal choice, not service for the party.
Although the Arakan Front Party, Rakhine’s second largest, refused to join the council and took an ambiguous stance toward the coup in its early weeks, its position changed when Dr. Aye Maung, the AFP founder and chair who had been imprisoned by the NLD government, was freed on February 12. Dr. Aye Maung received public criticism in Rakhine for thanking the junta’s leader for his release. In early March, on behalf of his party, he joined the ANP at a meeting of the junta’s Union Election Commission (UEC), tacitly supporting the regime’s electoral ambitions. Dr. Aye Maung has signaled the party’s intention to participate in the junta’s plan for a 2023 vote as Myanmar’s only escape route from the current crisis.
In May, the ANP, reversing course, and the ALD rejected the UEC’s invitation to join its meeting.
Shifting Attitudes Toward the NUG and Rohingya
Like many Rakhine people, the ANP, ALD and AFP consider the National Unity Government (NUG) an extension of the NLD and refused to be involved with it.
In May and June, after the NUG pledged to work with the International Court of Justice to prosecute the military for Rohingya genocide and announced its policy on equal citizenship status for Rohingya, some Rakhine politicians and social influencers argued that the NUG had no authority over Rakhine State to make such decisions. They viewed the NUG as selling out to international opinion to gain recognition rather than protecting Rakhine’s interests.
The AFP included among its seven party objectives a pledge “to constantly protect and fight against the illegal invasion of settlements in Rakhine State, which threatens not only the existence of Rakhine people and Rakhine State, but also the sovereignty of the Union, and the efforts to plunder Rakhine territory and expand new territory.” The statement used discriminatory language that refers specifically to Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
A few hours after the international court rejected Myanmar’s preliminary objections last month, U Ba Shein, a top leader of ANP, expressed support on social media for the team representing the coup regime in the Hague. He also posted a diatribe against the United States and the NLD for supporting the Rohingya.
Many Rakhine social media users, however, have criticized him and his ANP, accusing them of supporting those “who murdered the people alive”.
A New Trajectory for Rakhine Politics
Though Rakhine’s ANP, ALD and AFP continue to espouse the hardline nationalist and anti-Muslim views that worked for them in the 2015 elections, the political landscape has changed dramatically in recent years because of shifting public opinion and the ascendancy of the Arakan Army.
Structural discrimination against Muslims persists and Buddhist-Muslim relations remain tense, to be sure. Yet there are encouraging signs of greater openness toward Muslims, particularly among young people. Social media analysis by the author has found notably lower levels of anti-Muslim hate speech among Rakhine netizens since the coup. The analysis also found that much of the Rakhine public is less likely to equate the Sit-Tat with the Bamar public in general since the coup. These shifts clash with the narratives propagated by the Rakhine political parties, and could undermine their long-term viability, particularly if they continue to engage the junta’s governing State Administration Council (SAC).
As support for Rakhine political parties wanes, the AA’s campaign against the Sit-Tat in 2018 and 2019, and its successful efforts to replace Bamar and military administration across much of Rakhine State has generated widespread support. Unlike the political parties, the AA has also maintained a constructive and open relationship with the NUG and provides substantial assistance to resistance forces across the country.
The junta government has ambitious plans to conduct an election next year, including in Rakhine State. With the AA and Sit-Tat on the brink of war, the SAC will be fortunate if it is able to run elections in just a handful of urban areas across Rakhine State. If elections move forward, even in just a handful of constituencies, and the ANP and AFP participate, as expected, the AA will be in a difficult position. It may push to gain full control of the state or coordinate more closely with the national-level resistance to cripple the regime entirely ahead of the elections to ensure they don’t face this challenging prospect.
Either way, Rakhine State is likely in for another period of upheaval — militarily and politically.
Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is an independent researcher and journalist from Burma’s Rakhine State, writing on human rights, political transitions, and issues related to civil war and the military coup in Burma.