Violence flared a year ago when the Arakan Army attacked Myanmar police, forcing thousands from their homes.
More than 1.5 million people in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden areas have been politically disenfranchised after the country’s election commission scrapped voting in those areas in next month’s general election, deepening concerns about the credibility of the country’s first poll since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in 2015.
The vast majority of those affected are in Rakhine State, where the conflict between the autonomy-seeking Arakan Army and Myanmar’s armed forces has intensified since late 2018. Now, 1.2 million people in Rakhine will no longer be able to go to the ballot box on November 9.
Experts worry the move will further alienate ethnic Rakhine people in the troubled western state and feed into support for armed groups.
“The Union Election Commission’s procedures to cancel elections in conflict-affected constituencies are not transparent or consistent,” Min Zaw Oo, Executive Director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, told Al Jazeera.
“The cancellation will lead to the disenfranchisement of 73 percent of Rakhine voters and inevitably push them to more radical approaches, making it harder for national reconciliation,” he said.
The election commission said in a statement on October 16 that security concerns in those areas made it impossible to guarantee free and fair elections there. While some cancellations had been expected – and had happened in 2015 – many have questioned the commission’s opaque decision-making processes.
Ninety-two parties are contesting in the elections. The NLD and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party are the largest two parties participating.
While the NLD remains popular among the country’s majority ethnic group and is expected to win, many ethnic minorities have become increasingly disillusioned with the party. Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 campaign promise to make peace a priority, the past five years have seen a stalled peace process, mass displacement and the continuing political marginalisation of minority ethnic states.
In 2015, the NLD suffered its greatest defeat in Rakhine, where it lost to the Arakan National Party (ANP), whose electoral base is mostly ethnic Rakhine. Despite losing, the NLD used its constitutional powers to appoint a party member to lead the state cabinet, exacerbating a long-standing sense of exclusion among many Rakhine people.
The cancellations will also mostly affect other ethnic minority areas where support for the NLD is weak.
Five ethnic parties have already questioned the election commission’s impartiality, transparency, integrity and fairness in a public statement.
More controversially, cancellations are taking place in several areas of Rakhine State where there is no active fighting, such as Pauktaw township which the ANP won in 2015. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Chin State’s Paletwa township – a flashpoint in the conflict – voting is set to take place in five constituencies which the NLD won in 2015, according to an October 27 government announcement.
The commission told the media last week that its decisions were based on recommendations by the government, defence and home affairs ministries, military and police, but did not elaborate on the criteria it used.
Aung Kyaw Htwe, an ANP candidate who had been running for a seat in the state legislature in Pauktaw township voiced concern that the situation could worsen if people’s grievances about a lack of political representation remain unresolved.
“The result of the cancellation of elections in most parts of Rakhine State will be more intense conflict,” he said. “[The cancellations] will impact the stability of the state, trust and reconciliation. Beyond the elections, I am really worried about a worsening political and economic situation.”
Since September, more than a dozen activists have faced charges for protesting against the military and government’s approach towards the Rakhine conflict, including four who were arrested three days after the election commission’s announcement on October 16.
But preparations for the elections in parts of the state have been problematic due to the unrest there.
During the past two years, civil administration facilities have deteriorated. Voter registration in displacement camps has faltered and the security situation remains volatile in many areas.
The government has imposed internet restrictions over large parts of the state since June 2019, making campaigning in these areas near-impossible as the coronavirus pandemic grows. On October 14, the Arakan Army abducted three NLD candidates who were campaigning in the state’s Toungup township. The Arakan Army is demanding the release of imprisoned activists in exchange for freeing the candidates.
“While parts of Myanmar are facing serious security problems, the authorities should do all they can so that eligible voters can cast their ballots,” Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The Union Election Commission should consult with political parties and local groups in affected areas to validate the security concerns and consider options that would safeguard people’s right to vote.”
The election commission has not offered an alternative date or way to vote in constituencies where the elections have been cancelled. And any by-elections can only take place after the first year of a government’s term, according to the country’s electoral rules.
Human Rights Watch says the preparations for the elections have been riddled with “systemic problems and rights abuses that will deprive people of their right to fairly elect their government“.
Approximately 600,000 Rohingya have been denied voting rights under restrictive citizenship laws and the applications of several Rohingya candidates have been rejected.
The election commission has also faced questions over its decision not to postpone the elections despite a worsening coronavirus outbreak. Cases in Myanmar have jumped from a few hundred to more than 40,000 since August.
Htoo Htet Naing, who heads Accountable Actions for Arakan, which facilitates political dialogue between candidates in Rakhine State, is disillusioned with the electoral process and the cancellations. “I can’t accept the government which will come out after the elections. If our right to vote isn’t recognised, we won’t recognise the government,” she said. “The people have lost their rights and [ethnic] parties have been excluded and marginalised. It destroys people’s expectations for a democratic transition and negates people’s efforts to reform governance structures.”
Mra Thuzar, who lives in a village in Mrauk-U township, had been planning to vote for the ANP before the cancellations. “I had hoped our representatives would speak out on our behalf regarding rights abuses and humanitarian issues,” she said. Now, she is concerned for her safety. “I am really worried for the people in Rakhine State including me, because I can’t predict how the situation will change due to the cancellations,” she told Al Jazeera.
“The main loser is the Rakhine people. They lost their rights as citizens to choose their representatives, and we lost our ability to serve as their legitimate voice regarding politics, conflict and development,” said Aung Kyaw Htwe, the former ANP candidate.
“The election commission’s decision kills the voices of conflict-affected people… I think a representative government will not be achieved in Rakhine State.”