Myanmar May See More Violence After the Polls

There is a heightened risk of violence after the national polls this Sunday. This stems from two structural factors: inter-party clashes and the problems in Rakhine state.

Supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party take part in an election campaign rally on the outskirts of Yangon on 25 October 2020. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu, AFP)
Nyi Nyi Kyaw

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2 November 2020

Myanmar will go to the polls on 8 November 2020. Elections in some settings are prone to violent disturbances, and Myanmar is no exception. Recent weeks have already seen small-scale electoral violence. The dismal reality is that Myanmar may face more violence down the line.

Small-scale electoral violence is not unprecedented in Myanmar. The most infamous incident during the 2015 elections occurred in Thaketa township in Yangon Region on 29 October of that year. National League for Democracy (NLD) candidate Naing Ngan Lin was stabbed and beaten up by three men days before the 8 November polls. He sustained severe injuries but ultimately survived. While overall the 2015 elections were relatively free from violence, there is a greater risk of violence starting from the evening of election day when some results are out, and in the immediate aftermath of the 2020 elections.

Two structural causes explain the risks. First, the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions placed on parties’ and candidates’ activities have circumscribed the electoral campaign that officially began on 8 September 2020. Parties and candidates have had to rely on their supporters or partisans to conduct campaign activities, both offline and online.

In the past two months motorcades and parades of partisans of the ruling NLD, the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and other parties have been ubiquitous. Partisans have taken to all modes of conveyance imaginable – cars, motorbikes, bicycles, trishaws, tractors, trucks, boats, ships, horses, horse-drawn carriages and cattle carts. They also played, sang and danced with party campaign songs. Such campaign practices, often involving crowds, may lead to confrontation and violence. In September and October, at least four confrontations between NLD and USDP supporters occurred: in Pyawbwe and Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hinthada in Ayeyarwady Region and Kanbalu in Sagaing Region. The most recent incident, in Karbo village in Kanbalu township on 22 October, resulted in the death of a 38-year-old NLD supporter, who was beaten by a USDP “mob”.

Campaign practices in September and October have gone “tribal”. They have sensitised crowds along party lines, who may come out into the streets again when results of elections are not favourable for one side. But violence, if and when it occurs, will likely be small-scale in the form of confrontation, altercation and “fights”, one-sided or mutual, perhaps not reaching the level of full-scale riots.

Small-scale electoral violence is not unprecedented in Myanmar.

Another form of physical violence is more symbolic. It does not involve human-to-human and crowd-to-crowd confrontation. But recent months have seen the destruction of tens of the billboards of parties, including the NLD’s, in places including but not limited to Rakhine State, Shan State and Kayah State.

The second structural cause of electoral violence in Myanmar today stems from the unresolved armed and non-armed politics of Rakhine State. The fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) has increased in intensity during the current campaign period. The Rakhine ethnonationalist AA positions itself not just against the Tatmadaw but against the NLD. On 14 October, the AA abducted three NLD candidates in Taungup township, Rakhine State. As of early November, it had not yet released them.

Coincidentally or not, on 16 October the Union Election Commission of Myanmar announced the cancellation of elections in nine out of seventeen townships of Rakhine State. Rakhine political parties, especially the popular Arakan National Party, resent the decision and allege that it was politically motivated and rooted in the relative unpopularity of the NLD in those townships. The politics of Rakhine State will become bumpier after the elections, and the AA may even resort to more violence and target the NLD in the almost-certain scenario in which Rakhines will see their representation and voice drastically reduced in the post-election parliament.

In other parts of Myanmar motorcades and parades are rarer, and the elections are just a few days away. But this does not mean that violent confrontation between NLD and USDP partisans is improbable. There are at least two possible scenarios. The first scenario is that, if the NLD wins seats in townships such as Meiktila and Pyawbwe that the USDP now hold, the resultant tensions may lead to violence. In the second scenario, the NLD wins another landslide, which is very much possible, and the USDP proves unable to retain a few tens of seats that it has held. As a result, the USDP may turn to violence out of frustration and anger.

Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is a Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also an Assistant Professor (adjunct) in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/175

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