Hopes are rising that elections can soon be held in the nine Rakhine State townships where voting was cancelled on November 8, but the National League for Democracy seems unconvinced.
By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER
The lull in the sound of gunfire and heavy weapons from the fighting between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army that has wracked Rakhine State since late 2018 is music to the ears of townspeople and villagers.
Among the areas where the temporary suspension of hostilities has been welcomed is Kyauktaw town, near the border with Chin State, where there were fierce battles between the Tatmadaw and the AA until mid-August, when the second wave of COVID-19 struck.
Kyauktaw residents say the fighting stopped after announcements by the AA and the Tatmadaw in which both sides said they wanted to hold elections in the nine Rakhine townships where the Union Election Commission cancelled voting on November 8 for security reasons.
The silence is golden, the town’s residents say.
“There is no armed conflict and no sound of heavy weapons. The people are out and about and it’s just like normal times,” said U Oo Htun Hla, chair of the Arakan League for Democracy in Kyauktaw Township.
Oo Htun Hla, a lawyer, had planned to contest the state seat of Kyauktaw-2, but he is among the scores of candidates whose campaigns were left in tatters after the UEC announced in October that it was cancelling the vote in more than half of Rakhine’s 17 townships.
The decision, which also affected Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya, Myebon and Pauktaw townships, disenfranchised more than 1.2 million voters and likely denied the Arakan National Party a majority of elected seats in the state assembly.
The cancellation left unfilled seven seats in the Amyotha Hluttaw, nine in the Pyithu Hluttaw and 20 in the Rakhine State Hluttaw. In the 2015 election, the Union Solidarity and Development Party won one seat in the Amyotha Huttaw and two seats in the state hluttaw across the nine townships, and the ANP triumphed in the rest.
In a statement on November 12, the AA asked the government and the Tatmadaw to hold by-elections in the nine townships by the end of December at the latest. It pledged to observe a ceasefire until the end of the month to enable the vote to be held.
In a response the same day, the Tatmadaw welcomed the AA’s announcement and said it would do its best to ensure the by-election is held.
Crucially, fighting has also stopped since the election, following nearly two years of heavy conflict.
The Japanese embassy in Myanmar has since revealed that it has been engaging in behind-the-scenes dialogue to broker talks between the two sides, initially focused on enabling elections to take place.
On November 28, the Japanese ambassador to Myanmar, Mr Ichiro Maruyama, and Mr Yohei Sasakawa, Japan’s special envoy for national reconciliation in Myanmar, travelled to Kyauktaw and Buthidaung townships to meet residents and assess the situation. They then met ANP leaders in Sittwe to discuss the potential for holding elections.
The unofficial ceasefire since the election has raised expectations among residents of the nine townships, as well as political parties, that a vote can take place.
“I want the government to hold the election, if possible, and I expect it will,” Oo Htun Hla told Frontier.
“At a time when people are becoming war refugees and are being arrested by both sides and sometimes being killed, it is important that they have parliamentary representatives who can speak for them and their unfortunate situation,” he said. “An election needs to be held.”
The Rakhine State election sub-commission told Frontier it stood ready to hold an election in the nine townships if instructed to do so by the UEC.
“We are all ready; the voters’ lists, polling stations and polling station staff are ready,” said U Thurein Htut, the sub-commission’s secretary.
But the NLD seems lukewarm on the idea. Party spokesperson Dr Myo Nyunt said the NLD wanted every eligible voter to be able to vote, including those who had lost the right to vote. But he said the general election had been completed and by-elections must be held according to the law.
Under an amendment to section 89(b) of the Pyithu Hluttaw Election Law passed in 2019, by-elections cannot be held in the first and fifth year of the hluttaw’s term. The assembly will convene in late January 2021, meaning that a vote may have to wait until early 2022.
However, ethnic Rakhine MPs argue that a vote in the nine townships before the end of December should not be considered a by-election – although they acknowledged that both the Tatmadaw and AA had used the term “by-election” in their statements.
“It’s not a by-election; it could be a supplementary election,” said Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Pe Than (ANP, Myebon), a member of the ANP’s central policy affairs committee who was planning to re-contest his seat on November 8 before the cancellations.
They point to section 34(a) of the Pyithu Hluttaw Election Law, which states that the UEC should hold elections on the same day “as far as possible” – suggesting there is some leeway when circumstances prevent the vote from taking place simultaneously across the country.
Supplementary elections were held by the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League government in the early 1950s because of armed conflict, Pe Than said.
U Ye Htut, an information minister in the Union Solidarity and Development Party government, also said on his Facebook account that supplementary elections had been held in Myanmar in the past because of armed conflict.
Amyotha Hluttaw MP U Khin Maung Latt said that if the vote was held before the new parliament convenes in February, it could be considered a supplementary election, but there were other options too.
“If the government says it wants to hold an election but is constrained by the law, we can change the law,” said Khin Maung Latt, who was elected to Rakhine-3 for the ANP in the 2015 election but has since joined the breakaway Arakan Front Party headed by prominent Rakhine nationalist Dr Aye Maung.
He has been blocked from running as an AFP candidate by his former party, instead registering as an independent. The AFP and allied individual candidates like Khin Maung Latt had planned to contest five Amyotha Hluttaw, seven Pyithu Hluttaw and 14 state hluttaw seats in cancelled areas.
Ceasefire and more
The NLD government will have to consider other factors in addition to election law constraints for the election to go ahead, said party spokesperson Myo Nyunt.
“The ceasefire between the AA and the Tatmadaw is good for the people, but it cannot guarantee a free and fair election,” he said.
The conflict in Rakhine State has disrupted local administration across much of northern and central Rakhine, with many village tract administrators resigning out of fear of the Arakan Army, the Tatmadaw or both. This has affected the work of election sub-commissions, which rely heavily on the General Administration Department, particularly at the ward and village tract level. Meanwhile, an estimated 220,000 people have been displaced by fighting, and ensuring they are able to vote would be difficult for an already under-resourced bureaucracy.
“A lot of village tract administrators have resigned in Maungdaw, Mrauk-U and Minbya, for example, and this problem remains,” Myo Nyunt said.
In some villages in Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Buthidaung, it was not even possible to display voter lists at election sub-commission offices back in August.
“Voter lists needed to be accurate, ward or village tract election sub-commissions need to be formed, candidates would need to be able campaign fairly, and polling station staff should be safe and secure; without these, it would not be possible to hold an election,” Myo Nyunt said.
The AA has pledged to cooperate with the government and the relevant institutions to create the stable conditions needed to hold an election.
But Dr Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, said it would not be easy to hold the election, as a halt to fighting was not necessarily sufficient. For elections to be held, the area should also be free from threats to voters, he added.
“I found that in some cases, elections were not held because of threats, even though there was no fighting,” Min Zaw Oo told Frontier on November 22.
Figures from MIPS show there have been more than 300 clashes in Rakhine this year to October, and most occurred in Rathedaung and Kyauktaw, with 80 and 67, respectively.
Ko Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, said it will be difficult to hold an election in Kyauktaw and Rathedaung even if all fighting has stopped. However, he said it should be possible to vote safely in Myebon, Maungdaw and Ponnagyun.
“In some areas, Tatmadaw and AA troops are facing each other on the ground. The Tatmadaw will consider their security issues in those areas and it will be hard to hold elections there,” he said.
Oo Tun Hla said although the situation was not secure throughout much of the two townships, voting could take place in the towns of Kyauktaw and Rathedaung as well as nearby villages.
The NLD has also indicated that an election may not be possible while three of its candidates remain in the custody of the AA.
Pyithu Hluttaw candidate Daw Ni Ni May Myint, Amyotha Hluttaw candidate Daw Chit Chit Chaw, and state hluttaw candidate U Min Aung were detained by the AA on October 14 while campaigning in Rakhine’s southern Taungup Township.
After the NLD demanded their release on November 18, the AA responded on November 21 that they were being well cared for and would not be freed until both sides understood each other and negotiations were finalised. The group has indicated it wants an exchange for the trio, but for now the government insists this is impossible.
The fate of the three candidates may affect any decision about an election, Min Zaw Oo said.
Rakhine politicians and civil society groups say that if an election was held successfully it would provide a big boost for efforts to end fighting in the state. They also expressed concern that a failure to hold the elections would lead to a resumption of hostilities in Rakhine.
But for voting to take place, observers say the government, Tatmadaw and AA will most likely need to come together to discuss the practicalities.
There’s also concern among some observers that the separate statements by both sides might jeopardise the ability to maintain a ceasefire.
U Khine Kaung San, a steering committee member of the Arakan Election Monitoring and Observation Consortium, said it would be preferable for the AA and Tatmadaw to issue a joint statement.
“A joint statement would be better and if they could hold a press conference it would make it more formal. It would not be good if fighting continued despite ceasefire statements having been issued,” he said.
Min Zaw Oo said it would be extremely difficult to hold an election in the nine townships by the end of December, but if the current negotiations fail it could lead to a resumption of hostilities in Rakhine.
“The Tatmadaw is deploying troops and amassing weapons in Rakhine,” he said. “It seems like there is a plan to resume fighting … if negotiations fail.”
Pe Than praised the ceasefire move as a positive development that may enable all stakeholders to get back to peace talks.
“This kind of opportunity is rare,” he said. “I hope the government will hold the election.”