Ramma Kyaw Saw | DMG

Myanmar’s next general election will be held in November 2020. It is the third major poll in Myanmar since the 1990 election, in which a duly elected class of parliamentarians was not allowed to form a government and rule the country. It is the second election of its kind held since 2010, when a new era of governance in Myanmar began.

However, not every citizen had a right to the ballot in 2015: Elections in a handful of northern Shan State townships could not be held due to regional instability.

A similar situation is unfolding in Arakan State at the moment. Some political observers assert that it will be difficult to hold elections in Arakan State if the situation continues as is. The Union Election Commission, however, has told local media that voter lists are being compiled across the country.

As the election draws nearer, the activities of Arakan State-based political parties can be observed frequently, even as concerns grow that elections may not be held in some townships in their region, robbing constituents of their voice via the vote.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the Arakan National Party (ANP), the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) and the Arakan Front Party (AFP) are Arakan State’s biggest contenders in the coming election.

To date, the USDP has not shown a significant electioneering presence in Arakan State. The party notably did not compete for a seat in the 2018 by-election in Rathedaung Township, the only Arakan State constituency on the ballot that year.

At the dawn of 2020, the NLD continues to lose supporters in Arakan State. The policies set by the union government and its Arakan State counterpart regarding the state’s affairs are not in line with the opinions of the Arakanese people; this is a main factor in the decreasing support.

The NLD’s electoral bright spot in Arakan State’s otherwise forbidding political terrain is Thandwe district. Even there, however, the fight for voters’ favor is on, with the ANP and ALD parties staking out a formidable political presence in the area.

The ALD boycotted the 2010 election, and in doing so it stood with the NLD party, which also opted not to compete in a poll whose legitimacy was viewed with widespread skepticism. Five years later, however, the ALD merged with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) to form the Arakan National Party (ANP) ahead of Myanmar’s 2015 general election. The merger and the ANP’s subsequent committal to electoral politics in Arakan State was seen as legitimizing the polls. And while the ANP emerged from the November vote as one of the country’s most successful ethnic political parties, it was not long before cracks in the coalition began to show.

Still, there is no doubt that the ANP is well-funded and is Arakan State’s predominant ethnic political party. The party says it is preparing to take a “lessons learned” approach to 2020, drawing on its experience losing the Rathedaung seat in the 2018 by-election. The ANP says it has in place organizational infrastructure down to a township-level apparatus, and party committees including its Central Executive Committee are populated by a mix of veteran politicians and experienced youths.

Although the AFP is young, it should not be underestimated because there are many people throughout Arakan State who support Dr. Aye Maung, the party’s leader. The family name still holds sway in Arakan State, as evidenced by the victory of Dr. Aye Maung’s son U Tin Maung Win in the 2018 by-election race in Rathedaung.

It is difficult for the ruling NLD to win votes in northern Arakan State, so expect it to focus its campaign energies on the state’s south in the 2020 election. Even there, however, the incumbent government will struggle to change the opinions of many Arakanese who feel it has ignored their financial hardships and the many challenges that a war-affected people face, including the deaths of civilians caught up in the conflict’s crossfire.

Although several regional development works were carried out in Arakan State under the former USDP government, which took office in 2011, the current government has not matched that pace. It is one reason for declining NLD support among the people in Arakan State.

The number of IDPs continues to grow in northern Arakan State. Already commonplace clashes could grow in frequency and intensity, and the war zone could expand, as the weather grows more favorable for military maneuvers in the coming months. The logistical difficulties of arranging a vote under such circumstances is obvious.

If fierce fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA does not abate in the first quarter of 2020, it will be more difficult to hold elections within the townships where clashes are occurring. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy as well as a ray of hope for the people. They are the opportunity to vote into office a representative of their voices who will articulate their struggles, and hopes, in a legislative forum. So where elections are not held, democracy cannot be said to exist.

Many young people in Arakan State have yet to be convinced of the efficacy of party politics. They see a region beset by conflict that has only worsened since the last general election. Under such circumstances, no one party has won the affections of a majority.

If the 2018 by-elections are to be viewed as a barometer, the poll indicates waning voter enthusiasm across a diverse cross-section of constituencies. Amid such apathy, it is tempting to look at the example of some countries where a failure of eligible voters to cast a ballot results in a monetary fine.

However, given Myanmar’s political situation, such a punitive approach to democratic participation cannot be taken currently. The Myanmar people have not had many years to familiarize themselves with democracy; over the past decade, only two political parties have governed. Espousing different policies, both parties have fallen short of fulfilling the people’s hopes for the future.

And Myanmar is facing many challenges. The country is making little progress on national reconciliation and a peace process touted by the current government as Myanmar’s “21st Century Panglong” has not yielded significant breakthroughs in the country’s long-running civil war. Relations with some armed ethnic groups that have signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) are deteriorating. Meanwhile the country’s economy, long a regional laggard, is stubborn to rebound.

Beyond our borders, another troubling issue is Myanmar’s recent appearance before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The country’s leadership stands accused at the world tribunal of committing crimes potentially amounting to genocide against stateless Muslims in northern Arakan State.

As Myanmar’s 2020 general election approaches, the unflattering global attention will likely mean less international aid for the vote than was received for the holding of the 2015 election.

In particular, the repatriation process for stateless Muslims and ongoing fighting between the Tatmadaw and the AA are issues that must be handled carefully in the months to come.

Skepticism will accompany any cancellation of elections in war-affected townships of Arakan State where, as mentioned above, support for the ruling party is not strong.

To conclude, Myanmar is still walking the path of a nascent democracy. Most people are not familiar with elections, and thus it is necessary to carry out awareness campaigns to harness the people’s interest. To hold the vote in some northern Arakan State townships where Arakanese parties stand to make electoral inroads, regional stability as well as the blessing of the Union Election Commission are important.

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