More than 1.5 million people in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden areas were politically disenfranchised after the country’s electoral commission cut votes in those areas in next month’s general election, raising concerns about the credibility of the country’s first poll since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy In-Depth (NLD) won a landslide victory in 2015.
The vast majority of those affected are in Rakhine State, where the conflict between the Arakan Autonomous Army and Myanmar armed forces has intensified since late 2018. Now 1.2 million people in Rakhine will no longer be able to vote on November 9th.
Experts fear that the move will further alienate the ethnic Rakhine people in the troubled western state and help support armed groups.
“The Union Electoral Commission ‘s procedures for canceling elections in conflict-affected constituencies are not transparent or coherent,” Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, told Al Jazeera.
“The cancellation will disenfranchise 73 percent of the Rakhine voters and inevitably push them to more radical approaches, making national reconciliation difficult,” he said.
The Electoral Commission said in a statement Oct. 16 that security concerns in these areas made it impossible to guarantee free and fair elections there. While some cancellations were expected – and took place in 2015 – many have challenged the Commission’s opaque decision-making processes.
Ninety-two parties take part in the elections. The NLD and the military-led Party for Solidarity and Development of the Union are the two largest participating parties.
While the NLD remains popular with the majority of the country’s ethnic groups and is expected to win, many ethnic minorities are increasingly disaffected with the party. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 election promise to make peace a priority, over the past five years a peace process has stalled, mass displacement and continued political marginalization of ethnic minority states.
The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to win the November elections, but ethnic minorities feel left out and the cancellation of votes in some conflict areas is likely to make matters worse [Sai Aung Main/AFP]In 2015, the NLD suffered its greatest defeat in Rakhine, where it lost to the Arakan National Party (ANP), whose electoral base is mainly ethnic Rakhine. Despite the loss, the NLD used its constitutional powers to appoint a party member to head the state cabinet, exacerbating a longstanding feeling of exclusion among many Rakhine people.
The cancellations mainly affect other ethnic minority areas where support for the NLD is weak.
Five ethnic parties have already issued a public statement calling into question the impartiality, transparency, integrity and fairness of the electoral commission.
Cancellations are more controversial in several areas of Rakhine state where there is no active fighting, such as in the Pauktaw community, which won the 2015 ANP. In the neighboring municipality of Paletwa in Chin state – a hotspot of the conflict – the vote is to take place According to a government announcement on October 27, it will take place in five constituencies that the NLD won in 2015.
The commission told the media last week that its decisions were based on recommendations from the government, defense and interior ministries, the military and the police, but did not address the criteria it used.
Aung Kyaw Htwe, an ANP candidate who ran for a seat in the Pauktaw Township state assembly, expressed concern that the situation could worsen if people’s complaints about lack of political representation remain unresolved.
“The result of elections being canceled in most parts of Rakhine State will be a more intense conflict,” he said. “[The cancellations] will affect the stability of the state, trust and reconciliation. After the elections, I am very concerned that the political and economic situation will deteriorate. “
The Rakhine were desperate to vote in the November elections, but authorities say the security risk is too high to be elected in some areas of the western state [Nyunt Win/EPA]Since September, more than a dozen activists have been charged with protesting the military and government stance on the Rakhine conflict, including four arrested three days after the election commission announced on October 16.
Preparations for the elections in parts of the state were problematic due to the unrest there.
In the past two years the facilities of civil administration have deteriorated. Voter registration in displacement camps has stalled and the security situation remains volatile in many areas.
The government has been imposing internet restrictions on large parts of the state since June 2019, making campaigning in these areas nearly impossible as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies. On October 14, the Arakan Army kidnapped three NLD candidates who were fighting in the state’s Toungup community. The Arakan Army is demanding the release of detained activists in exchange for freeing the candidates.
“While parts of Myanmar are facing serious security problems, the authorities should do everything possible to enable voters to cast their ballots,” said Phil Robertson, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement Wednesday.
“The Union Electoral Commission should consult with political parties and local groups in the affected areas to validate security concerns and consider options that would protect people’s right to vote.”
The electoral commission has not offered an alternative date or electoral process in constituencies where elections have been canceled. And by-elections, according to the country’s electoral rules, can only take place after a government’s first year in office.
According to Human Rights Watch, preparations for the elections were fraught with “systemic problems and rights violations that deprive people of the right to vote fairly for their government.”
Denied voting rights
Approximately 600,000 Rohingya were denied the right to vote due to restrictive citizenship laws and several Rohingya candidates were turned down.
The electoral commission also had questions about its decision not to postpone the elections despite a worsening coronavirus outbreak. Cases in Myanmar have risen from a few hundred to over 40,000 since August.
Many of the Rohingya who remain in Rakhine live in camps for displaced persons. Many were denied citizenship, disenfranchised and rejected as general election candidates [File: Nyunt Win/EPA]Htoo Htet Naing, head of Accountable Actions for Arakan, which facilitates political dialogue between candidates in Rakhine state, is disillusioned with the election process and the rejections. “I cannot accept the government that will come out after the elections. If our right to vote is not recognized, we will not recognize the government, ”she said. “People have lost their rights and [ethnic] Parties were excluded and marginalized. It destroys people’s expectations of democratic transition and negates people’s efforts to reform governance structures. “
Mra Thuzar, who lives in a village in the Mrauk-U community, had planned to vote for the ANP before the rejection. “I was hoping our representatives would speak up on rights violations and humanitarian issues on our behalf,” she said. Now she is concerned about her safety. “I am very concerned about the people in Rakhine state, including myself, because I cannot predict how the situation will change because of the cancellations,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The main loser is the Rakhine. They have lost their right as citizens to vote for their representatives and we have lost our ability to serve as a legitimate voice on politics, conflict and development, ”said Aung Kyaw Htwe, the former ANP candidate.
“The election commission’s decision kills the votes of those affected by conflict. I think a representative government will not be achieved in Rakhine State.”