Villages deserted because of fighting and officials fearful of leaving towns have seriously disrupted planning in Rakhine State for the November election, in which tens of thousands of citizens are unlikely to exercise their right to vote.
By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER
Fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army has raised a big question mark over the feasibility of voting in many constituencies in Rakhine State on November 8.
The security situation is precarious in more than half of Rakhine’s 15 townships, particularly Kyauktaw, Minbya, Myebon, Mrauk-U, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Ponnagyun and Ann.
The fighting in Rakhine State is considered the heaviest Myanmar has seen in decades and has left possibly thousands of combatants and civilians dead, as well as up to 200,000 people displaced.
In many areas of the state the conflict has also disrupted civil administration, with village tract administrators – who play an important role in organising the election and overseeing voting – having already resigned en masse.
Yet when preliminary voter lists went on display last month so that the public could check their details were correct, the lists were posted in all but 17 of the 1,036 village tracts in the state, according to the state election sub-commission, suggesting that it may be possible for voting to go ahead in many parts of the state.
This contrasted with Paletwa Township in southern Chin State, where The Irrawaddy reported that lists were posted in just 50 of the township’s 120 wards and village tracts.
U Thurein Htut, secretary of the state’s election sub-commission, confirmed on August 21 that lists containing the details of more than 25,000 eligible voters had not been displayed in 17 village tracts across Kyauktaw, Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Ann townships. Instead, these lists were shown at township offices.
The reason they could not be shown is because “the villages are deserted” due to the fighting, Thurein Htut said.
The preliminary lists were displayed at wards and village tracts throughout the country from July 25 to August 7 but after a flood of complaints about errors the Union Election Commission announced an extension to August 14.
Kyauktaw Township, in northeastern Rakhine bordering Chin State, had the most village tracts where voter lists were not displayed.
Daw Aye Aye Thwae, secretary of the Kyauktaw Township election sub-commission, said the lists could not be displayed in Tinma, Mondaung, Miwa, Laungshe and Myaukdaung village tracts.
“Residents are scattered at IDP camps and at the homes of relatives in the town, so voter lists could not be put up at the villages,” she said.
The five village tracts include more than 20 villages and at least 8,000 voters.
“We put them up at the township office instead, but no one came to check it,” Aye Aye Thwae said, adding that village tract secretaries have instead had to go to IDP camps and find residents of emptied villages to check the lists are accurate.
A similar situation prevails in Buthidaung Township, which borders Kyauktaw to the west. U Than Aye, secretary of the Buthidaung Township election sub-commission, said lists were not posted in three deserted village tracts that include more than 1,600 voters.
U Thurein Htun, secretary of the Ann Township election sub-commission, said lists could not be displayed at 12 polling station locations, mostly in Dalet village tract.
Most of the 5,000-plus eligible voters in affected villages have been forced to flee because of fighting, he said.
“Because IDPs are scattered all over the place, an accurate list cannot be made; it is only rough data,” Thurein Htun said.
It is unclear whether those who have fled their villages will be able to vote. State election commission officials say they are willing to move polling stations near IDP camps, but it would require approval from the UEC in Nay Pyi Taw.
The Arakan Army has not had it all its own way on the battlefield, but one of its major successes has been disrupting civil administration.
In its Annual Peace & Security Review 2020, the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security said the AA has “worked to systematically undermine and disrupt government operations and jurisdiction” and in towns like Mrauk-U and Kyauktaw the civilian government “has effectively ceased operating”.
“Regular targeted killings of suspected government collaborators by unknown actors has also helped to prevent civil servants from carrying out their duties, as well as cultivated a widespread aversion to dealing with the government or government-linked entities in northern Rakhine,” the report said.
Given the absence of many village tract administrators and other officials, Rakhine civil society leaders say they believed the number of sites where lists could not be displayed might be many more than what the state election sub-commission announced.
“Voter lists could not be shown in hundreds of villages because administrator’s offices no longer exist in most villages,” said U Khaing Kaung San from the Arakan Election Monitoring and Observation Consortium.
Khaing Kaung San, who is also a director of the Wan Lark Rural Development Foundation, said that many villages in Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Ponnagyun and Mrauk-U townships have been abandoned because of the fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA.
He said he believed it would be difficult for voting to take place outside urban areas in those townships, as well as Minbya.
Election commission officials acknowledge that the lack of administrators is a major challenge to organising the election.
In Myebon Township, which has seen heavy clashes over the past 18 months, lists were posted in all villages despite many administrators having resigned out of concern for their safety.
U Ba Tin, chair of the Myebon Township election sub-commission, said that in the absence of administrators, ward or village clerks were being relied on to compile voter lists, but they were reluctant to travel to villages because of the security situation.
“Most of them [village tract clerks] live in town and say that going to villages is dangerous,” Ba Tin told Frontier on August 10.
Myebon has 64 village tracts but township election sub-commission staff are only able to work in the township’s urban areas, comprising nine wards, because of security concerns, Ba Tin said.
“If something happens, we worry it might spread. We dare not go to village tracts,” he said.
The fear of going to villages has resulted in delays to other aspects of electoral preparation besides voter lists.
“Voter education could not be provided,” said Thurein Htun, referring to the situation in Ann Township.
“We [also] could not go and check the venues planned for polling stations and make necessary preparations,” he added.
Similar disruptions to election planning have been reported by election sub-commission officials in Mrauk-U and Minbya townships.
U Tun Win, deputy staff officer of the Mrauk-U Township election sub-commission, said staff had to take great care while doing their work.
“We can be hit by landmines or caught in the middle between clashes; we cannot be certain that a village is safe to enter,” said Tun Win, who lives in Mrauk-U town. “If there has been fighting in an area, we can’t go there.”
Nevertheless, township election sub-commission officials in Rakhine told Frontier in the second week of August that they were following instructions to prepare for the election.
Security will be the most important factor in determining if voting takes place, said Ba Tin from the Myebon Township election sub-commission.
“If an area is not secure,” he said, “voting cannot go ahead.”