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.
“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.
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.