Tale of Five Elections

Mrauk-U

A woman plants rice near a historic brick pagoda in Mrauk-U Township, Rakhine State on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
A woman plants rice near a historic brick pagoda in Mrauk-U Township, Rakhine State on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Mrauk-U: Election in a war zone

In the temple-strewn Rakhine State township, most would-be voters say they’re trying too hard to survive to take much interest in the November election.

This article is part of Frontier’s Tale of Five Elections series. We’re following the election through five townships across the country, capturing events and local voices through the campaign, voting and declaration of winners. Stay tuned for updates about Mrauk-U, as well as Mayangone in Yangon Region, Bawlakhe in Kayah State, Myitkyina in Kachin State and Pyawbwe in Mandalay Region.

By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER

The stone-brick Buddhist temples of Mrauk-U rival those of Bagan in splendour. Though often called “ancient”, they were built between 1430 and 1785, when Mrauk-U served as the cosmopolitan capital of the Arakan kingdom. In 2017, a commission appointed by the government to recommend solutions to conflict in Rakhine State urged the government to nominate the sprawling collection of ruins as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Former United Nations secretary-general Mr Kofi Annan, who chaired the commission, called Mrauk-U “arguably the greatest physical manifestation of Rakhine’s rich history and culture.”

But for the last two years, the township in north-central Rakhine has been the scene of some of the most intense combat between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, which is fighting for greater political autonomy for the state. With ballots still set to be cast on November 8, the chance of being caught between the two warring groups’ fire has created an atmosphere of fear among voters, candidates and election officials. 

Map created by Thibi

Tatmadaw troops perch on the hills surrounding the town and man checkpoints on all main roads leading in and out of it. Military columns regularly march through the urban centre, and a 9pm-5am curfew has been in place since April last year. A particularly fierce battle in July saw the military carry out airstrikes in the area.

The township has also been subject to a mobile internet blackout since June last year – imposed by the government ostensibly to disrupt the AA’s operations but criticised by human rights groups as a cover for human rights abuses by the Tatmadaw. 2G service was made available in August this year, but Frontier found it to be virtually unusable. 

“Here, you travel at your own risk,” said Daw Thida Khaing, 36, secretary of the Mrauk-U Township election sub-commission. 

“Village [tract] election sub-commission members might plan to come to town, but on the way here, they hear news of something happening and turn back,” she said, referring to the many sudden eruptions of conflict in the township.

Interest ran high during the 2015 election, when support for the ANP was strong. The party won 22 of the 35 elected seats in the state’s 47-member assembly. But that excitement turned to resentment after the election, when then-president U Htin Kyaw – who the constitution gave the authority to appoint state and regional chief ministers – chose U Nyi Pu, a member of the National League for Democracy, as Rakhine State chief minister.

Daw Thida Khaing, 36, secretary of the Mrauk-U Township election sub-commission, at her office in Mrauk-U on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Daw Thida Khaing, 36, secretary of the Mrauk-U Township election sub-commission, at her office in Mrauk-U on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

The NLD had won just nine seats in the state hluttaw, and besides the position of Chin ethnic affairs minister, these NLD victories were confined to southern townships, where Rakhine nationalism is weaker.  For ANP voters elsewhere in the state – such as in Mrauk-U, where the NLD received only about 5 percent of the vote – the appointment of Nyi Pu as chief minister felt like a slap in the face. For some, it must have sounded a distant echo with 1785, when the Bamar Konbaung Dynasty conquered the Arakan kingdom.

The 2014 census put Mrauk-U Township’s largely rural population at 189,630, but the General Administration Department has more recently counted 244,981 residents. Of these, 87pc are ethnic Rakhine, but with the township sharing a border with Chin State to the north, there are also about 4,500 ethnic Chin residents, according to the GAD. 

How votes were split between parties in the 2015 election. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

Nearly 68pc of the township’s 141,446 eligible voters cast their ballots in 2015, mostly for the ANP, which won about 75pc of votes cast in Union and state hluttaw races. The Tatmadaw-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party came a distant second, with just a little more than 10pc of votes.

But the cost of the violence that has since engulfed the township has eroded most interest in the November election. Several of Mrauk-U’s historic temples – once seen as a possible tourism lifeline in the impoverished area – are strafed with bullets. There are 26 camps sheltering about 18,000 people displaced by the conflict. Some of these camps are at the foot of the town’s most significant temples, including the Shittaung (built in 1535), named after its 80,000 Buddha images, the Htokekathein (1571) and the Laymyathnar (1430).

Just 30pc of this year’s 157,674 eligible voters checked preliminary voter lists for errors or omissions, and only about 200 had made corrections to their entries, according to data from the township election sub-commission in late August.

In teashops and restaurants in the town, most talk was of the armed conflict and the AA. When Frontier entered, the chatter would die down but quickly resumed once people concluded we were safe. The upcoming election, however, was barely spoken about, and the young people climbing hills around the town for rare snatches of mobile internet signal were mostly seeking news of the war rather than the vote. 

Rakhine IDPs rest in a temporary shelter at the Shitthaung IDP camp in Mrauk U on August 20. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Rakhine IDPs rest in a temporary shelter at the Shittaung IDP camp in Mrauk U on August 20. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

“Most people think it will make no difference if they vote. They’re not interested in the election,” said Ma U Myint Yi, the 26-year-old vice-chair of the 290-member Mrauk-U Youths Association, which runs youth development programmes and assists internally displaced people.

She said most are preoccupied with the ongoing conflict, the “second wave” of COVID-19 cases that began in Rakhine in mid August, and their own struggle to make a living. Electoral politics seems to offer few answers to these problems. 

She said most people are unhappy with their current MPs’ performance, but that, for now, disinterest outweighs dissatisfaction. 

Twenty-four candidates from seven parties, including the ANP, Arakan Front Party, USDP and NLD, are contesting seats in the township. The splintering of Rakhine nationalist politics since 2015 has made the result hard to predict, with a fierce contest expected between the ANP and the AFP, whose leaders broke away from the ANP in 2018.

The AFP’s founder, former ANP chair Dr Aye Maung, was sentenced in March last year to 20 years’ imprisonment for high treason after accusing the Bamar-dominated National League for Democracy government in a public speech of treating Rakhine people like “slaves”. In May the Union Election Commission annulled his status as a Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Ann Township because of the conviction, but he still receives widespread support in north and central Rakhine.

The ANP chose U Htun Nay Win, 36, to contest the township Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Mrauk-U after the incumbent, prominent party member U Oo Hla Saw, decided not to seek re-election. Htun Nay Win will face off against the AFP’s U Maung Than Myint, 62. 

Daw Mi Shwe Phyu, 55, owns the Moe Cherry restaurant in downtown Mrauk-U. She laughed when asked whether future MPs might be able to solve any of her problems. 

Her restaurant, which for nearly 20 years has mainly served foreign tourists visiting the historic temples, earned K1 million a day before December 2018, when fighting escalated. Earnings have dwindled over the past two years because of the fighting.

Daw Mi Shwe Phyu, 55, at her Moe Cherry restaurant in downtown Mrauk-U on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Daw Mi Shwe Phyu, 55, at her Moe Cherry restaurant in downtown Mrauk-U on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

“I want our township to be peaceful, because only then will tourists come back and our restaurant be able to do good business again,” she told Frontier from her empty restaurant.

She’ll vote for a Rakhine-based party but has not yet decided which – whichever one prioritises peace and development, she said. Still, her expectations for progress are low.

November will be 22-year-old Ko Maung Maung Htay’s first time voting. But the young electronics repairman, who lives in the town’s Myothit ward, has not checked his entry on preliminary voter lists.

He said he wants an MP that can stop the Tatmadaw from harassing and detaining civilians. 

“When we go to the market, there are Tatmadaw soldiers, and they often interrogate young men like me. If they want to take us with them we can’t do anything about it,” he said. “We want politicians who can solve these kinds of problems.” 

For him, that looks most like Aye Maung’s party, the AFP.

How voters turned out in 2015. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

U Htun Nay Win, seen here in the Arakan National Party office in Mrauk-U's Nyaung Bin Zay ward, was the ANP's candidate for the township's Pyithu Hluttaw seat before voting was cancelled in Mrauk-U alongside eight other townships in Rakhine State. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

‘Democracy has been stolen from us’: Disenfranchisement in Rakhine leaves a bitter taste

As the nation voted on November 8, the residents of Rakhine’s Mrauk-U Township had to watch from the side-lines, and many fear a lack of political representation will worsen conflict in the state.

This is the final article about Mrauk-U in Frontier’s Tale of Five Elections series. We have followed the election in five townships across the country, capturing events and local voices through the contest and its aftermath. Scroll down for the first two articles on Mrauk-U.

By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER

While voters across the country clustered in long queues under the scorching sun to cast their ballots on election day, the northern Rakhine State township of Mrauk-U was silent. No polling stations were open in the temple-filled former capital of the medieval Rakhine kingdom, and no fingers were dipped into blue ink.

“It was sadly just a normal day,” said U Htun Nay Win, the Arakan National Party’s candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw before the Union Election Commission cancelled voting in Mrauk-U on October 16.

The Rakhine nationalist ANP won a plurality of seats in Rakhine in the 2015 election and was expected to retain a dominant position in the state with the November 8 vote, although the party had suffered splits since 2015 and was facing competition from rival Rakhine parties.

Voting was cancelled in Mrauk-U and eight other townships in the state, and in 152 wards and village tracts in four additional Rakhine townships, on the grounds of insecurity created by fighting between the Tatmadaw and Arakan Army. This deprived the ANP of most of its strongholds in the north and centre of Rakhine, while preserving predominantly NLD-voting areas in the south of the state, inviting allegations that the UEC had used the pretext of insecurity to gerrymander Rakhine to benefit the ruling party.

No fighting took place on November 8, Htun Nay Win said, but more than 1.2 million of the state’s 1.6 million eligible voters were still disenfranchised.

In Mrauk-U itself, 157,674 people were registered to vote.

Map by Thibi

“It feels bad being unable to vote when you’re watching voting take place across the rest of the country,” Ko Shwe Than Kyaw, a 26-year-old Mrauk-U resident, told Frontier on November 10. Before the vote was cancelled, he had trained as an election observer.

“It feels like democracy has been stolen from us,” he said.

November 8 would have been 22-year-old Ko Maung Maung Htay’s first time voting. He was ready to cast his ballot for the Arakan Front Party, founded by prominent Rakhine nationalist Dr Aye Maung after he quit as chair of the ANP in 2017. Aye Maung is currently serving a prison sentence for high treason for publicly accusing the NLD government of treating the Rakhine people “like slaves”. Only the AFP, Maung Maung Htay believes, could broker an end to the arbitrary killing and arrest of civilians that plagues Mrauk-U and elsewhere in the state.

“If a vocal candidate on these issues had been elected, maybe just a few positive changes could be made to our miserable condition,” he said. “Now we can only pray for less fighting and fewer arrests and killings in the days to come.”

In early November, the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a civil society group, announced that more than 234,000 people in the state had been internally displaced by the fighting. Mrauk-U alone hosts more than 34,700 IDPs, 20,901 of whom are living in camps and 13,858 with host communities.

Even before the cancellation, there were no voter lists for camp residents. Although election sub-commission officials cited plans for special voting arrangements for IDPs, they said they would probably be unable to reach people displaced in rural areas, least of all those outside of camps.

“We wanted to vote like anyone else,” said U Htun Thein Maung, a 50-year-old resident of the Myo Thit IDP camp in Mrauk-U town. Given the chance, he said he would have voted for the ANP.

“I’m depressed,” ANP candidate Htun Nay Win said. “Under the 2008 Constitution, it was already hard to achieve self-determination – we know that. But we wanted our people to vote so the Rakhine people could at least have a voice. This year we couldn’t even do that.”

“This oppression will only further unite the Rakhine people,” he added.

Youths play chinlone by the ruins of the former Rakhine royal capital in Mrauk-U. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Htun Nay Win and other Rakhine party candidates tried to follow the election results in the south of the state, where voting was allowed to go ahead, on November 8. But getting news was made difficult by the mobile internet ban, which the government continues to impose in seven townships in northern and central Rakhine, including Mrauk-U, and in Paletwa Township in neighbouring Chin State. The blackout began in June 2019 and service was restored at the beginning of August this year, but only at 2G speeds that make most web browsing and communication impossible.

“On election day I called [people in] Gwa, and then in Maunaung, then Taungup,” Htun Nay Win said. “We were very excited.”

U Maung Than Myint, the 62-year-old AFP Pyithu Hluttaw candidate for Mrauk-U before the vote was cancelled, said the same.

“I can’t get regular updates [on my mobile], but we can sometimes get internet for a minute here and there,” he said. “By the following night we had all the results from Rakhine State.”

These results would have provided some consolation to Htun Nay Win and Maung Than Myint. In the end, the ANP won four Pyithu Hluttaw, four Amyotha Hluttaw and seven Rakhine State Hluttaw seats, while the AFP won one Pyithu Hluttaw and two state hluttaw seats. The NLD, meanwhile, won five state hluttaw, one Amyotha Hluttaw and two Pyithu Hluttaw seats, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party won one state hluttaw and one Pyithu Hluttaw seat.

This means that, despite being hugely disadvantaged by the voting cancellations, the ANP remains the largest party in Rakhine, although even an ANP-AFP alliance would not create a majority in the state parliament once Tatmadaw representatives have filled their constitutionally mandated 25 percent quota of seats.

Significantly, Rakhine party victories included seats won by the NLD in 2015, in Taungup and Munaung townships, suggesting that Rakhine nationalist sentiment – or at least disaffection with the NLD government – has seeped southwards in recent years.

“Rakhine party wins in Taungup and Munaung are important, regardless of which [Rakhine] party it is. These seats moved from NLD into ethnic Rakhine hands, and we are very happy about that,” Maung Than Myint said.

While the NLD kept all its seats in the far-southern Rakhine townships of Thandwe and Gwa, Maung Than Myint said there was reason to expect that, in future polls, these too would fall to Rakhine parties. “The next step is, in coming elections, to ensure all seats [in Rakhine] are held by ethnic instead of national parties,” he said.

Downtown Mrauk-U, seen on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

“We held a dinner with the ANP youth wing in Mrauk-U to celebrate our achievement in southern Rakhine,” Htun Nay Win said.

But the celebration was likely bittersweet. Many worry that without political representation, people in Mrauk-U and elsewhere in Rakhine will grow increasingly embittered, raising the likelihood and intensity of conflicts in the near future.

“If possible, we want by-elections to be held in Mrauk-U as soon as possible,” said Ma U Myint Yee, vice-chairperson of the Mrauk-U Youths Association.

On November 12 the AA declared a unilateral ceasefire until December 31 and called for elections to be held by the end of the year in parts of Rakhine where voting was cancelled, while offering its own assistance in conducting the polls. In an unlikely response, the Tatmadaw welcomed the AA’s call to fast-track by-elections in Rakhine and even said it would coordinate with the AA to make them happen.

However, electoral law bars by-elections from being held during the first and last year of a parliament’s term, meaning disenfranchised Rakhine voters will not be able to cast ballots until February 2022 at the earliest. Even if this rule were to be amended to allow for a much earlier vote, conflict between the AA and Tatmadaw remains intense, and it seems unlikely that the insecurity that prompted the voting cancellations in October would decline significantly in the next few months.

“I am worried we will have to go without representation for a long time,” said Htun Thein Maung, the 50-year-old resident of Myo Thit IDP camp.

“We need MPs. Now, we are like orphans.”

The Lay Myet Hna temple in Mrauk-U Township is seen on August 22. Voting in the November election has been canceled in the entire township, angering Rakhine politicians. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

‘The referee is taking bribes’: Rakhine candidates fume over vote cancellations

Rakhine politicians believe the ruling NLD is exploiting the war and its appointment power over the election commission to wipe their parties from the electoral map.

This article is part of Frontier’s Tale of Five Elections series. We’re following the election through five townships across the country, capturing events and local voices through the campaign, voting and declaration of winners. Scroll to the bottom for the first article on Mrauk-U.

By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER

Don’t mistake the bamboo poles protruding from the roofs of downtown Mrauk-U for TV antennas. Or flag poles. Atop each pole is a plastic bag containing a mobile phone with its hotspot function switched on. The owners are trying to get an internet connection.

In June 2019, the government shut down mobile data in Mrauk-U and seven other townships in northern Rakhine State and in Paletwa Township in neighbouring Chin State, citing insecurity from fighting between the Tatmadaw and the insurgent Arakan Army. The shutdown has ostensibly been lifted, but mostly at 2G speeds that make most tasks impossible.

Even before 2G service was restored on August 1, some residents were able to catch 3G ­– and sometimes even 4G ­– signals atop hills outside of town, though only on Telenor networks. This prompted many to try the bamboo pole method. The Tatmadaw has since barred residents from hiking up to the hilltops, and even more bamboo poles have gone up across town.

The ongoing war and the world’s longest-running government-mandated internet blackout had animated many of the election campaigns in Mrauk-U, where ethnic Rakhine voters feel largely alienated from and oppressed by the Bamar-dominated central government, led by the National League for Democracy.

Those feelings were only further inflamed on October 16, when the Union Election Commission cancelled voting in the entire township. Mrauk-U was among nine of Rakhine’s 17 townships where the election was cancelled outright on security grounds, alongside dozens of village tracts and wards across four other townships. The UEC has also cancelled voting in six whole townships and dozens of village tracts and wards in Shan State, as well as in parts of Bago Region and Kachin, Kayin and Mon states; but outside of Rakhine, voting has been cancelled in fewer areas than in 2015.

The cancellations in Rakhine disenfranchised 73 percent of the state’s 1,649,753 registered voters, but also wiped out the Rakhine nationalist Arakan National Party’s core constituencies in the north and centre of the state, while largely preserving the NLD’s stronghold in the southern townships.

The ruling party appoints all UEC members via the president, and this has fuelled suspicions that the election commission was using a dubious security pretext to re-draw the Rakhine electoral map in the NLD’s favour.

Map by Thibi

“It’s like a football match where the referee is taking bribes,” said U Maung Than Myint, who was Mrauk-U’s Arakan Front Party candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw before the vote was cancelled. “It’s very ugly. It has scarred the election. And, to put it bluntly, it’s shameless.”

The UEC has insisted it was acting on security recommendations from the government and military, and few would deny that the war in Rakhine has not decimated much of the government infrastructure that is essential for holding an election, from ward and village tract administration offices to the schools that host polling stations. This is particularly the case in rural areas, where many local administrators have fled their posts and election officials feared to visit. But Maung Than Myint was shocked when he saw that the cancellations cover the entire urban area of Mrauk-U, which is closely guarded by the Tatmadaw and where the necessary administrative apparatus is intact.

“We did not expect the whole city to be cancelled,” he said. “It seems that the government and the commission are misusing their authority.”

Candidates and civil society activists unanimously told Frontier that elections could safely be held in every corner of the township except in the Pauktaw Pyin village tract, located about one mile north of the urban area and the site of ongoing fighting.

Seats in Mrauk-U and other cancelled townships will remain empty until by-elections that will happen in early 2022 at the soonest, according to the rule that a by-election cannot be held during the first or last year of a government’s term, and then only if the UEC judges the security situation to be favourable.

When Frontier visited Mrauk-U in August, the city was quiet and people moved about freely. Leaving the town, however, not far from Pauktaw Pyin village we saw armed AA troops marching along the Yangon-Sittwe highway.

Candidates had been campaigning against what they called Tatmadaw aggression against not just AA combatants but also Rakhine civilians, including arbitrary arrests and mounting civilian deaths. 

“Without voting, we Rakhine will continue under even greater oppression, but we will have no voice,” said Htun Nay Win, 36, the former Arakan National Party candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw.

He believes the cancellations will only intensify the war.

“The political space [for achieving peace] will shrink, and the war will only grow,” he told Frontier during the last week of October.

But even if voting were to go ahead across the state, like it did in 2015, precedent suggests that Rakhine voters would have little influence of who governs them, even at the state level. Despite winning 22 of the 35 elected seats in the 47-member state hluttaw in 2015, the ANP was denied the right to form the state government by the triumphant NLD, which appointed one of its own as chief minister – a right granted to it under the junta-drafted 2008 Constitution. Across parties, Rakhine politicians see self-determination as impossible under a central government dominated by Bamar-majority parties such as the NLD and the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Damned from day one

Before elections officially began on September 8, Myanmar’s “second wave” of COVID-19 was first detected in Rakhine State in mid-August, and Mrauk-U residents have been living under stay-at-home orders issued to stop the virus from spreading since August 26. Even before the vote was canceled, Htun Nay Win, Maung Than Myint and others said that the combined effect of the internet blackout and the stay-at-home orders had already made campaigning impossible.

Face masks are handed out in Mrauk-U in mid-August at the beginning of Myanmar’s second wave of COVID-19. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Parties in the state’s south, where 3G internet is available and the NLD is popular, and elsewhere in Myanmar have mitigated some of the damage of COVID-19 restrictions by moving their campaigns online – an impossible adaptation with a feeble 2G connection.

“It’s hugely disappointing,” Htun Nay Win told Frontier on October 7, before the vote cancellations. “At this time during the 2015 campaign period we were very active; we had submitted our touring programme to the UEC and had gone out campaigning.”

Still, by mid-October candidates had assumed the vote would take place.

“It hurts a lot,” Maung Than Myint said of the late-stage cancellation.

Candidates believe the UEC made the decision to close all polling in Mrauk-U at the discretion of the NLD because the party knows it has few supporters there (in the Pyithu Hluttaw race in 2015, NLD candidate got less than 4pc of the vote). They pointed out that in nearby Paletwa in southern Chin, where some of the worst clashes have taken place but where the NLD holds all five seats and is still considered popular, the elections are going forward.

Mrauk-U Township covers 1,270 square kilometres, of which 1,100sq km – or more than 90pc – is rural and accounts for roughly 84pc of the population, according to General Administration Department figures.  It is here that most fighting has taken place, displacing about 30,000 people, many of whom have crowded into shelters in the town.

It is unclear if voters, particularly in rural areas, are as angered as Rakhine politicians by the cancelation. Villagers that Frontier spoke with on a visit in late August were focused on surviving the war and eking out a living, and seemed largely uninterested in the election. Many were unaware of who the candidates were.

But in both town and country, less than two weeks before the election, the sound of gunfire and news of the latest clashes are likely holding more attention than news about candidates and campaigns elsewhere in the country.


Kaung Hset Naing

Kaung Hset Naing

Kaung Hset Naing began his journalism career at The Voice in 2013. Before joining Frontier in July 2020 he also worked for Mon state-based Hinthar Media, Mizzima and BETV Business.
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