Myanmar’s 2020 Elections and Disenfranchisement in Rakhine State

When Myanmar’s Union Electoral Commission (UEC) cancelled elections in parts of the country, many criticized this step as favoring the National League for Democracy (NLD) at the cost of ethnic parties. But a closer analysis of some cases in Rakhine reveals that this is not necessarily true. Rather, cancellations may in fact strengthen the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) close to the military (Tatmadaw) in some constituencies in Rakhine State.

Anti-government Protest in Sittwe, Rakhine State
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Anti-government protest in Sittwe, Rakhine State, October 2020

On 14 October 2020, three candidates from the National League for Democracy (NLD) campaigning in a village in Taunggup township in Rakhine State were abducted by an unknown armed group. The Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine armed group, later claimed responsibility. Among the abductees, two are incumbent MPs representing State and Pyithu Hluttaws. Two days later, the Union Election Commission (UEC) decided that it will cancel elections in different parts of Myanmar including Rakhine State for security concerns.

Rakhine State is severely affected by the UEC decision as the elections would not be entirely held in nine different townships (Budhidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon and Pauktaw)  in Northern Rakhine State and partially held in four other townships (Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Taunggup and Ann). As a result, only four townships (Ramree, Man-aung, Thandwe and Gwa) in Rakhine State would have to witness full elections on 8 November. On the other hand, polling in all village tracts in the townships of Kyaukphyu (52), Taunggup (52) and Ann (29) was cancelled by the UEC, allowing only for minimal voting in downtown quarters. Interestingly, military engagement with the AA were not taking place in Pauktaw and Kyaukphyu townships. This disenfranchisement affected nearly 800,000 ethnic Rakhines, including 220,000 civil-war IDPs in the State. Moreover, it is estimated that over half of 600,000 Rohingya Muslims (known as ‘Bengalis’ in Myanmar) remaining in the country would not be able to vote in the upcoming national polls.

Manipulation by the NLD Government?

Many analysts criticized that the NLD government was behind the scene on influencing the UEC. All entirely cancelled townships in Rakhine State were comprised of constituencies where the NLD had lost clearly in the 2015 general elections. The Arakan National Party (ANP) won all Pyithu Hluttaw constituencies in these townships. Accusations also emerged that the UEC intentionally annulled the elections in those areas so that ANP would not get a chance to win in the forthcoming Myanmar elections, and that the UEC would hold full elections only in NLD-dominated townships. In 2015, the NLD won all constituencies in all Hluttaws (parliamentary chambers) in three (Gwa, Thandwe and Man-aung) out of four townships where elections would be fully held. Criticism also appeared for holding elections in war-torn Paletwa township in Chin State (bordering Rakhine) where the NLD won in the 2015 elections. The UEC stated that decisions were made according to the recommendation on security provided by the Tatmadaw; however, the latter argued that the UEC did not fully follow or implement their recommendations. After that, the UEC made a few changes on its previous decisions. According to the amendments, elections would not be held in the village tracts of Paletwa township, but there would be elections in three village tracts in Kyaukphyu township which had previously been cancelled by the UEC.

It should be noted that the NLD had already declared in July 2020 that it would not contest elections in 5 Amyotha Hluttaw constituencies or six townships in Northern Rakhine State – Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Minbya/Myebon, and Mrauk-U. From this point, it was anyone’s guess whether the NLD government did not intend to hold elections in those townships for security reasons, or rather because it would lose in those townships. It could also be argued that the elections were cancelled due to military tension with the AA in those townships. The AA had previously stated that the government should discuss in advance with them to hold elections in Northern Rakhine State. However, it later changed their attitude by saying that the government could hold the elections there for the benefit of the Arakan peoples.  The government did not show any intension to negotiate with the AA nor did they discuss with the armed group. The Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) did not contest in any of the cancelled townships except for Kyauktaw.   

As the NLD did not take part in most townships in Northern Rakhine, it appears rather logical to say that the UEC cancelled elections where the NLD could not win. However, it is not true that the UEC’s partial cancellations in other townships were favoring the victory of the NLD party.

In the previous 2015 elections, the ANP received 45.4% of votes in Kyaukphyu township for the Pyitthu Hluttaw. The USDP got 23.5% and the NLD received 13.3%, respectively. Cancellation of polling in the village tracts in Kyaukphyu by the UEC could be a big blow to the ANP party because most voters for the ANP came from these village tracts. These specific patterns of election cancellation by the UEC could therefore result in a decline in a great number of voters for the Rakhine parties (not only ANP, but also ALD and Arakan Front Party (AFP), in this time). It could in fact be a big favor to the USDP, as the percentage of its supporters was much higher than the NLD in Kyaukphyu township. Moreover, the UEC’s re-decision of holding elections in three village tracts which had previously been cancelled – Sittaw, Gone-chwein and Awa-taung – affected military dominated areas. Sittaw is the base of the Dhanyawadi Naval Command, Gone-chwein is the place for No. 542 and 543 light infantry battalions and Awa-taung is an area of the Taung-maw-gyi Naval Base. Therefore, the Rakhine parties and the USDP have to compete in this elections in Kyaukphyu township. As a result, it would be difficult to say that the UEC’s decisions were just made in favor of the NLD party.  

Another example is Ann township. The military headquarters of the Western Command are located in Ann and in the 2015 election, the USDP won a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw. However, the ANP won in the following by-elections. The percentage of votes for ANP (or Rakhine parties in this time) and USDP are almost equal in numbers (around 30% each) along with the NLD (about 25%). But most of the ANP’s votes came from the village tracts. It looked like the UEC was cancelling the ANP-supporting areas and favoring the USDP party. However, a quarter of votes which the NLD obtained in 2015 and the victory of a Rakhine party in the previous by-elections should not be underestimated.   

Taunggup township is also interesting. In June, the UEC annulled an Amyotha Hluttaw constituency in Maungdaw district (there were two constituencies in previous elections) and created a new constituency for Taunggup township. However, disenfranchisement in all village tracts in Taunggup township affected this newly created constituency, including the NLD supporters. Taunggup was a historically NLD-dominated area. However, recent ANP campaigns in Taunggup township also show the rise of a Rakhine party in Taunggup although it is an NLD-dominated area. It could be because of dissatisfaction of Rakhine peoples in the township on recent cancellation of elections in various parts of Rakhine State. On the other hand, Daw Tin Mar Aung, a well-known close aid of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is contesting from the ALD party in Taunggup. 

The UEC and Rakhine State Elections

Many have criticized that the UEC was favoring the NLD in terms of cancellation of elections in Rakhine State. It could be rather true for Thandwe district (Thandwe, Taunggup, Gwa townships). But the cancellation in the village tracts of Taunggup township does not count for the entire district. The UEC actually made independent judgments based on their perception of the security situation on the ground – and that those independent judgments are likely to favor the NLD in some case, but other parties (perhaps including the USDP) in other cases. However, the cancellations are unlikely to favor the Rakhine ethnic parties.