A deserted main street in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe is pictured on August 23. Statewide stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made campaigning difficult in the state, and near impossible in northern townships where severe restrictions on internet access have been in place for more than a year. (AFP)
A deserted main street in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe is pictured on August 23. Statewide stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have made campaigning difficult in the state, and near impossible in northern townships where severe restrictions on internet access have been in place for more than a year. (AFP)

‘Having to run with your legs tied’: Rakhine parties cry foul over election curbs

Mobile internet and COVID-19 restrictions have combined to make a free and fair election impossible in Rakhine State, parties say.

By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER

For political parties in Rakhine State, election campaigning ended before it began.

The day before the Union Election Commission announced the start of the official 60-day campaign period, on September 8, the Ministry of Health and Sports banned rallies and door-to-door canvassing in areas under lockdown, which includes all of Rakhine. Statewide stay-at-home orders were issued on August 26 to stem Myanmar’s “second wave” of COVID-19, which began in the state’s capital in mid-August. 

“Campaigning is not possible in all 17 townships in Rakhine, which are under stay-at-home orders,” said Daw Aye Nu Sein, spokesperson for the Arakan National Party, which holds 22 of the 35 elected seats in the 47-member state hluttaw.

The only option for parties in these areas is to campaign online. But that’s a problem in northern and central Rakhine, where a government-imposed mobile internet blackout has been in place for more than a year. 

The government claims the ban is meant to interrupt communications within the Arakan Army, which is fighting the Myanmar military for greater autonomy, but rights groups and health professionals have called it a rights violation and an impediment to spreading knowledge and awareness of the virus. During an election campaign period carried out amid a pandemic, it also risks disenfranchising much of the state, candidates say.  

On August 2, the government restored mobile internet access in the seven Rakhine townships, along with Paletwa Township in neighbouring Chin State, that were subject to the blackout. However, this was only at dismal 2G speeds that have made internet browsing and communication virtually impossible.

“If the restrictions and limitations continue, the election cannot be free and fair,” said Aye Nu Sein.

“It’s like having to run with your legs tied,” said U Khine Kaung San, a member of the Arakan Election Monitoring and Observation Consortium’s steering committee. “Under current circumstances, the election cannot be free or fair.” 

Eighteen parties and 380 candidates, including independents, are contesting seats in Rakhine, and while the restrictions are challenging for all of them, they are particularly difficult for newly-formed or minor parties and their candidates, who have less name recognition.

The Arakan League for Democracy competed in the 1990 election, where it won several seats, but was disbanded when it merged with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, led by Dr Aye Maung, to form the ANP ahead of the 2015 vote. When a factional dispute erupted within the ANP after that election, a group of former ALD members quit to re-establish their old party in 2017. But despite the ALD’s pedigree, it has had to build much of its party organisation from scratch and find political novices to run as candidates. 

In contrast to the ANP, which is competing in all but one of Rakhine’s 63 constituencies for the Union and state parliaments (not including the race for the state’s Chin ethnic affairs minister post), the ALD is competing in 26. All of these are in southern Rakhine, except one in Ann and Kyauktaw township each, in the centre and north of the state.

“Almost all of the ALD candidates are new faces, except for the lawmaker who represents Ramree in the State Hluttaw,” said ALD party general secretary U Myo Kyaw, referring to Ramree-1 state hluttaw incumbent U Kyaw Lwin, who is also the state agriculture minister. 

Kyaw Lwin won the seat as an ANP candidate in 2015 but was ousted from the ANP after accepting the ministerial post. 

The Arakan Front Party, another party of ANP defectors, is considered the ANP’s biggest challenger. This is because it was formed by former ANP leader Aye Maung, who had led the RNDP prior to the ANP’s formation and is a hardline Rakhine nationalist. After a trial that inflamed local resentment towards the government, Aye Maung is now serving a 20-year sentence for high treason for giving a public speech in early 2018 that accused the Bamar-dominated government of treating the Rakhine people “like slaves”.

The AFP, which registered with the UEC in January last year, is fielding 42 candidates in Rakhine, about 60 percent of whom are new to politics.

But though the ANP is the more established party, and retains an expansive network of local branch offices, 75pc of its candidates are also first-timers, Aye Nu Sein said.

The lack of experienced candidates is partly because several MPs from the ANP chose not to run again, and partly because some incumbents were refused re-selection.

The party cannot field a candidate for the state hluttaw seat of Kyaukphyu-2 because their nominee, U Pho San, was disqualified by the UEC because his son is a member of the AA, which the government considers a terrorist organisation.

‘The situation is hopeless’

With political ads effectively barred from radio and television by the Ministry of Information, campaigning in townships where only 2G mobile internet is available is largely limited to erecting billboards and distributing leaflets in wards and village tracts. 

“For the time being, that is all we can do,” said U Kyaw Zaw Oo, vice chair of the AFP.

But even that is being made near impossible by the pandemic. A shortage of trucks – partly due to freight disruptions caused by COVID-19 restrictions – and the suspension of bus services has limited the reach of party posters, stickers, flyers and other campaign material, Aye Nu Sein said.

Myo Kyaw reiterated the point.

“Election materials are not only failing to reach northern Rakhine, but also Kyaukphyu and Thandwe [in southern Rakhine],” he said. “There are no highway buses, and trucks only travel when they have a full load … The situation is hopeless.” 

Candidates accept that the stay-at-home orders are needed to stop the virus from spreading but say there is no reason that full mobile internet shouldn’t be restored.

“A good internet connection would enable me to campaign from home,” said U Oo Htun Hla, a lawyer competing in his first ever election as the ALD candidate for the Kyauktaw-2 state assembly seat.

U Khin Maung Latt, who holds the Amyotha Hluttaw seat for Rakhine-3, said voters won’t know who to vote for if they are unable to acquire information about candidates. They are losing their rights as voters, he said.

Khin Maung Latt is running for the Rakhine-5 upper house seat as an independent this year, despite being a member of the AFP’s central advisory council. He was barred from vying for the party because the ANP refused to accept his resignation, and UEC rules state that the member of one party cannot be a candidate for another. Several other candidates who have broken from the ANP to join other parties have had to run as independents for this reason.

Still, parties acknowledged that even with internet access, campaigning and voting would be difficult amid the continued fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA. 

Pushing to postpone

The disruptions have prompted several parties, including the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, to lobby for a delay to the election – a prospect that is causing some concern in Rakhine.

The military-drafted 2008 Constitution sets parliamentary and presidential terms limits at five years, meaning a new Hluttaw must convene by the end of January and a new government must be formed by the end of March. If this timeline is not met, Khin Maung Latt said he and others worry the president could declare a state of emergency, which would grant him and the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief sweeping powers to rule without the Hluttaw. 

Nobody – not ethnic parties or their rival National League for Democracy – wants to see such a scenario, said Khin Maung Latt.

The UEC said in an online press conference on September 19 that the election will not be postponed, and that any cancellations of polling in townships or individual village tracts will not be because of COVID-19. These cancellations, which are expected in large parts of Rakhine where armed conflict makes polling impossible, will be announced next month.

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