“Will There Be No Elections in Rakhine State in 2020?” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/108, 20 December 2019

The chief of the Myanmar insurgent group the Arakan Army (AA), Major General Tun Myat Naing, said on 17 December 2019 that the organisation of voting in Rakhine State during the general elections due in late 2020 would require the group’s ‘permission’. This ‘bold’ statement from the leader of an armed ethnonationalist group that has — with mounting intensity since January 2019 — been waging a war for ‘self-determination’ against the Myanmar military has considerable implications for the ongoing political transition in the country and for its approaching elections.
The politics of Rakhine State — whether intercommunal, electoral or armed — has been extreme and at times violent in the past seven years. The state has seen intercommunal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims in 2012–2014; the victory of the right-wing, ethnonationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) at the state level in the elections of 2015; armed rebellion, insurgency or ‘terrorism’ on the part of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2016 and 2017 and the AA more recently; and a series of resultant crackdowns on the part of the Myanmar military.

The AA and its most recent statement will affect the political transition and the integrity of the next polls, the second ‘democratic’ elections in a Myanmar in transition to take place since 2010. The first democratic elections, in November 2015, brought the now ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to power in a landslide victory. With an eye to the next polls, political parties including the NLD have started jostling to ensure electoral triumph, in a sign of early election fever in the country. The AA’s statement will affect the second such elections in at least four ways.

First, in the broad political context, the AA is in rebellion against the military in an effort to secure a permanent military foothold in Rakhine State and against the Union of Myanmar in order to win self-determination for the state. Its recent activity has disturbed the foundation of political power in Myanmar, which is apparently shared by the NLD and the military. For example, in early November the AA abducted the ethnic Chin NLD lawmaker U Wae Tin, accusing him of creating anti-AA propaganda among Chins and of collusion with the military. He is yet to be released. On 9 December, the AA said it would tax large-scale investments in parts of Rakhine and Chin States under the group’s partial control. And on 11 December the AA abducted U Ye Thein, chairman of the NLD’s Buthidaung township branch in Rakhine State, because he was planning a pro-Aung San Suu Kyi rally in support of the state counsellor’s appearance in Myanmar’s defence at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Second, as part of its grand plan to take power in Rakhine State, the AA now seems determined to block elections there, if the government seeks to organize those elections without the group’s permission. Third, this determination confronts electoral democracy not only in Rakhine State in particular but in Myanmar as a whole with a potential crisis of legitimacy. Failure to hold elections in the politically fragile state, where the ANP won more state-level seats than did the NLD or any other party in 2015, would be a grave setback for Myanmar’s nascent democracy. Fourth, the AA has not endorsed any Rakhine political party. However, if as elections approach Rakhines or the NLD government can convince the AA to permit them, the AA may directly or indirectly interfere in those elections by endorsing a party or telling Rakhine voters whom to support.  

Politics in Rakhine State will remain extremely fragile and prone to violence throughout 2020. Attempts on the part of the AA to interfere in elections may even set a precedent for other ethnic armed groups that have not yet taken such strong positions against holding elections in places under their partial or complete control. The AA’s example is, for this reason, ominous.  
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Law of the National University of Singapore and Visiting Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.