Rebels Call For Election in Parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine Denied Vote

The rebel army fighting a two-year war against Myanmar government forces in Rakhine state issued an appeal Thursday to hold “by-elections” in conflict areas where 1.2 million voters were not allowed to vote in weekend general elections, winning a rare nod of approval from the military.

The Arakan Army’s proposal, issued as election results from Sunday pointed to a second term for Aung San Su Kyi’s ruling party, came on the heels of an apparent peace gesture by the military, which on Tuesday unveiled a permanent five-member Peace Talks Committee to negotiate with rebel armies.

It was described by an AA spokesman as a show of “goodwill” that underscored its concern that denial of democracy will stoke more violence in war-torn Rakhine state, where an intensifying conflict has killed roughly 300 civilians, injured more than 600 others, and driven about 226,000 people into refugee camps.

“The failure to hold elections in most townships in Rakhine state has resulted in the loss of the right to vote and the loss of elected representatives who can represent the voice of the people,” said the statement from the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA).

“Ethnic and democratic rights were also affected,” said the AA, a mostly ethnic Rakhine force of some 7,000 fighters battling central authorities for greater autonomy for the Rakhine people in what they consider their historic homeland.

“The Burmese military should work with the [National League for Democracy] government to end the offensive in Rakhine state, declare a nationwide cease-fire, and hold by-elections as soon as possible,” the AA said, calling for a vote by Dec. 31 and offering to extend its unilateral ceasefire to the end of 2020.

Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun did not address the cease-fire demand, but said the army was in agreement with its foe in Rakhine, which the government declared a terrorist organization in March and has excluded from peace negotiations.

“The military chief frequently stated that the military wishes to hold free and fair multiparty democratic elections,” he said. “The military chief also stated that he wishes that every registered voter be able to vote. That’s why we welcome the AA’s statement,” said the spokesman.

Rakhines lose voting rights

Final elections results are expected early next week, but partial tallies showed the NLD had won a second five-year mandate, with nearly 400 of the 644 seats in the bicameral national parliament — more than the total 322 seats required to form a government.

The Union Election Commission (UEC), which oversees voting in Myanmar, declared that the elections had been conducted freely and fairly with successful measures taken to protect voters from the coronavirus pandemic.

But the UEC was widely criticized for suspending balloting in some ethnic minority states due to unrest and armed conflict, disenfranchising up to 2 million voters, most of them in Rakhine state.

Voting was cancelled in nine entire Rakhine townships, while in other townships, more than 100 wards and village tracts had polling scrapped. As a result, Rakhine lost 16 parliamentary seats in the national parliament in Naypyidaw and 20 state parliamentary seats in Sittwe, with 1.2 million out of 1.6 million total registered voters unable to cast ballots.

President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay, said government officials had already discussed holding by-elections in areas of the country where general elections had been suspended before the AA issued its statement.

“The government will be negotiating and coordinating [with others] in order to hold elections in areas left out of the Nov. 8 elections,” he said.

At a press conference in Naypyidaw on Wednesday, UEC spokesman Myint Naing said the commission would hold by-elections in parts of the country where voting has been nixed due to security concerns, including some townships in northern Rakhine State.

“When the situation in those areas becomes stable enough for legally free and fair elections, we will hold them there,” he said.

“We will always ask for recommendations from security and administrative departments, and if they agree to hold the elections, then we will do so,” he said.

Practical obstacles to new vote

Aye Nu Sein, an attorney and spokeswoman for the Arakan National Party (ANP), a political party that represents the interests of the Rakhine people in the state, said it would be challenging to hold by-elections in townships still experiencing the coronavirus pandemic.

Rakhine state emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot during a resurgence of outbreaks that began in mid-August.

“I doubt that it would be possible to hold another election in a month,” she said. “We have seen COVID-19-related restrictions largely hinder political campaign activities. Now, the third wave of the pandemic is almost upon us.”

Preliminary voting results from Sunday’s elections indicate that the ANP beat out the NLD to win a majority of constituencies in southern Rakhine state and in the state capital Sittwe.

The decision to hold by-elections is up to the UEC, said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt.

“The laws already state when a by-election can be held, so we should abide by these legal mandates,” he said. We want to create permanent peace, not just complete an election.”

Myo Nyunt questioned the conducting of a vote while the AA is still holding three NLD candidates its soldiers abducted in mid-October, snatching them up by speedboat. The AA has confirmed the abductions, but has not yet said when it will release the trio.

“I especially doubt that the second election would be fair when the armed group has yet to release three NLD candidates and only intends to claim victory for the candidates from its own ethnic group,” he said.

Looking for compromise?

Holding by-elections in restive areas of the country could backfire, said Naing Swe Oo, founder and executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, a pro-military think tank based in Naypyidaw.

“If the UEC reverses this decision and convenes elections in these regions, there will be disputes and suspicions over the credibility of the voter lists,” he said.

“The convening of elections could disrupt the relatively calm situation we have now,” he added.

But political analyst Maung Maung Soe said the move could open the door to peace negotiations between Myanmar forces and the AA.

“Both sides are now looking for something on which they can compromise,” he said.

Branded by the government as a terrorist organization, the AA has been excluded from four rounds of peace negotiations aimed at ending ethnic insurgencies that have ravaged Myanmar since its independence from Britain in 1948.

“We issued this statement with goodwill to avoid the losses of the local people’s voices and their voting rights,” AA spokesman Khine Thukha said.

“If the environment is no longer democratic, the situation will get worse,” he said. “We would like to avoid further armed combat. Political negotiations are crucial to avoid that.”

“We are ready to cooperate if the government will hold the by-elections,” he added.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.