The Arakan National Party’s decision to work with the new military regime has exposed divisions in a state where many regard the National League for Democracy with contempt.
The people of Rakhine State, where scores of civilians have been killed by fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army and tens of thousands remain in camps for the internally displaced, have had one reason to welcome the February 1 coup.
Just two days after its seizure of power, the military government restored 4G internet services in seven Rakhine townships as well as Paletwa Township in neighbouring Chin State. About one million users had been without a 4G service for 594 days, in what had been condemned by human rights groups as the world’s longest internet shutdown.
“When the military reopened the internet in Rakhine after it seized power, the people were happy and they welcomed it,” said U Pe Than, a central executive committee member of the Arakan National Party, which won the largest number of seats in Rakhine in both the 2015 and 2020 general elections.
That same day, in another development with important repercussions for the state, Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing appointed ANP spokesperson Daw Aye Nu Sein to the State Administration Council that replaced the government, alongside several other ethnic minority representatives.
When the ANP announced the next day that it was prepared to work with the military for the best interests of Rakhine, including efforts to resolve the conflict, it generated a backlash from other political parties and civil society groups in the state.
They objected to any involvement with a government appointed by the military that had caused so much death and destruction in Rakhine.
In a statement issued on February 7, 47 Rakhine CSOs criticised the willingness of the ANP to work with the putchists, saying that no political party, organisation or individual should take part in or support an illegitimate administration formed against the will of the people.
“We seriously urge the ANP to reconsider its decision to accept membership in the State Administration Council and to cancel it,” the statement said.
Daw Aye Myat Kyaw, director of the Arakan CSO Network, said it was “completely unacceptable” to cooperate with and encourage a dictatorship that will suppress the people.
“The impressions of army boots have not yet been erased from the faces of some of the people; the entire nation knows this well,” she told Frontier.
In response to the criticism, the ANP has called a meeting of central executive committee members and candidates in last year’s election, for February 12 to 14.
“Daw Aye Nu Sein’s acceptance of a position with the military’s State Administration Council will be discussed at the meeting,” said Pe Than, who was formerly the Pyithu Hluttaw lawmaker for Myebon Township.
Spurning the SAC
Attempts by the military to appoint members of other Rakhine parties to the SAC were unsuccessful – as were efforts to woo most ethnic parties elsewhere in Myanmar.
The Arakan League for Democracy and the Arakan Front Party, both of whose members split from ANP due to factional strife before the 2020 election, said they had spurned offers to join the junta. But while the ALD said they had rejected a place on the SAC on principle, and AFP has indicated it would not rule out cooperation in some other form.
“We have no plan to accept the offer; we love democracy and we have no plan to cooperate with the junta,” ALD secretary U Myo Kyaw told Frontier on February 9.
The AFP decided not to join the SAC after the matter was discussed at a meeting of its leaders, the party said in a statement released on February 6. However, the statement said the AFP was prepared to negotiate with “any organisation” in the best interests of Rakhine, without regard to the party’s own interests.
AFP vice chair U Kyaw Zaw Oo wrote on Facebook on February 8 that the party would take a “non-aligned” position vis-a-vis the Tatmadaw and the ousted NLD government, and was open to pragmatic cooperation on that basis.
Pe Than, the ANP CEC member, said the party did not welcome the coup d’etat, but did not object to it, either.
“Whether it is democracy or dictatorship, we don’t differentiate; we will decide based on what is in the best interest of Rakhine State,” he said. “In the past, we have experienced military dictators and democratic dictators and there is not much difference between them.”
Pe Than was expressing an opinion shared by many Rakhine politicians that the NLD government that took office in early 2016 had behaved like a democratic dictatorship by privileging the interests of the majority Bamar over minority groups like the Rakhine.
Despite winning the most seats in the Rakhine Hluttaw in the 2015 election, the ANP was not allowed to choose a chief minister and form the state government. The NLD exercised its right under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution to appoint the state’s chief minister, even though the party won nine seats in the state Hluttaw to the ANP’s 22. In March last year, the NLD used its numbers in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw to vote down an opposition-sponsored amendment to the constitution that would have allowed chief ministers of states to be elected rather than appointed by the president.
The ANP also accused the NLD government of ignoring the deaths and human rights violations in the fighting in the state and blamed it for the internet blackout, which was ordered by the civilian-controlled Ministry of Transport and Communications. There was also anger over the cancellation of voting in nine of Rakhine’s 17 townships in last year’s elections. The party decried the move as gerrymandering, because it disenfranchised most ANP strongholds while allowing voting to go ahead in pro-NLD constituencies in the south.
“Those decisions look like the acts of a democratic dictator,” Pe Than said, referencing the fact that the election commission that ordered the vote cancellations was wholly appointed by the NLD government.
Peace or ploy?
The willingness of the ANP to cooperate with the SAC is partly motivated by its desire for a lasting peace in the state, where an informal ceasefire between the AA and Tatmadaw since the November 8 election ended two years of often savage fighting.
The ANP wants the SAC to cancel the AA’s designation as a terrorist group and negotiate a formal ceasefire. It also wants the SAC to release those detained under the 2014 Counter Terrorism Law for allegedly associating with or supporting the AA, and to take responsibility for the resettlement of thousands of people displaced by fighting.
Pe Than said it was essential to establish peace with the AA, which remains outside of the formal peace process governed by the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Without a firm deal with the armed group, peace in Rakhine will be elusive, he said.
Meanwhile, the AFP has been celebrating the release from prison of its leader, the veteran Rakhine nationalist politician Dr Aye Maung, who was among more than 23,000 inmates whose sentences were remitted by the SAC to mark Union Day on February 12.
Aye Maung formerly chaired the ANP but split from the party in 2017 before founding the AFP. In March 2019 he was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for high treason over a speech a year before in which he accused the National League for Democracy government of treating the Rakhine like “slaves”.
The ALD’s Myo Kyaw said on February 9 he believed the SAC may acquiesce to the demands of Rakhine political parties as it is facing protests throughout the nation and needs the support of ethnic nationalities.
“As they are facing unrest on one hand, they are trying to fulfil the demands of ethnic people on the other,” he said, but added that the Tatmadaw’s concessions may ultimately prove shallow. “They behaved like this in the past,” he said, referring to cynical efforts to buy off ethnic minority groups, “and we need to ensure that their intentions are genuine.”
Rakhine-based civil society groups also doubt the intentions of the military government and consider the lifting of the 4G internet blackout a cheap ploy to win popular support in the state.
“Internet access in northern Rakhine was shut down by the military,” said U Khine Kaung San, director of humanitarian, rural development and human rights education group the Wan Lark Foundation. He was suggesting that, although the NLD government had formerly ordered the blackout, it had only done so at the behest of the Tatmadaw. “The fact that the internet was restored by the military after it seized power shows it can close or open the internet as it wishes.”
“The changes taking place in Rakhine now might be part of a military strategy to cause splits in Rakhine politics,” he said, adding that Rakhine political parties needed to respond with caution and resolve.
Aye Myat Kyaw from the Arakan CSO Network was adamant that Rakhine political parties should not cooperate with the SAC for any reason, because nothing good could come from dictatorship.
“Even if a military dictator can fulfil some of the wishes of the Rakhine people, we still wouldn’t want him,” he said.