Myanmar regional political parties have expressed shock and anger after election authorities cancelled voting in more than 50 townships across the country, citing military conflict -- a move critics says favors the military and ruling party while stripping 1.3 million voters of a choice on Nov. 8.
Before the announcement early this week by the Union Electoral Commission (UEC), about 37.5 million people were eligible to vote for candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, to fill 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
The cancellations unveiled by the UEC will affect 56 townships in whole or in part nationwide, resulting in 17 fewer members of the national parliament than were elected in 2015.
The vote is cancelled wholly in 15 townships in conflict-torn Shan and Rakhine states and partially in over 500 village tracts in Kachin, Karen, and Mon States and the Bago region, authorities said.
“We are getting ready to hold the election on the ground. The polling stations are all in place,” said Zaw Myint Win, secretary of Shan State Election Commission, who said the decision to cancel voting in some townships was totally unexpected.
“There is no problem on the ground. The candidates are campaigning extensively in the townships. We were getting ready to hold the election,” he told RFA.
Five townships in the Wa Self Administrative Region, Pangsang, Namphan, Mongmao, Pangwaun and Mongla Townships had voting cancelled.
In response to the uproar, Myint Naing, member of UEC said the decision was based on input from the central government, the ministries of home affairs and defense, as well as local governments.
“We have collectively reviewed their remarks through the different levels of the UEC before making this announcement,” he said Tuesday.
In response to the criticism that the UEC canceled the elections in townships where there have been no armed conflicts, Myint Naing said the commission might reverse some decisions with the agreement of relevant ministries.
RFA sought comments from presidential spokesman Zaw Htay, but received no response.
Military spokesman Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun said the military provided information to the UEC on where they can effectively safeguard the security of polling stations, "but there are discrepancies between our remarks and their list."
"I cannot specify the details of the discrepancy. The UEC’s list is not the same as our information," he said, citing "confidentiality” as his reason for not revealing the discrepancies.
Quiet island district sees polls cancelled
In Rakhine state, the UEC canceled voting in the townships of Pauktaw, Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Myaebon and Mrauk-U Townships in Rakhine. All had held elections in 2015.
Fighting between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) has raged in northern Rakhine and in Paletwa township of next-door Chin state since late 2018. Nearly 300 civilians have died, more than 640 have been injured, and 220,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
Many critics said most canceled townships in Rakhine state are relatively peaceful compared to Paletwa in Chin State, which is not included in the canceled list, despite frequent clashes there.
“We have been campaigning on three islands of Pauktaw,” said Tun Thein, an Arakan National Party candidate for the township.
“I can’t think of any reasons to cancel election in this township. No one in Pauktaw township expected that the election will be canceled,” he said.
According to Thurein Htut, the secretary of the Rakhine Election Commission, 1.2 million out of 1.6 million registered voters have lost their voting rights due to the decision to cancel the election in nine out of 17 townships in the state. The state will lose a quarter of seats in each of the union and state parliaments, he said.
“There are only 35 seats for elected MPs in Rakhine State parliament and 20 of them will be vacant. So the upcoming parliament will not be representative of Rakhine people,” said Kyaw Hsan Naing from the Rakhine state election watch group.
“We haven’t heard a single gunshot in our town,” said Aung Kyaw Htwee, a political candidate for Pauktaw township. "The claim that we cannot held free and fair election in our townships is pretty biased and far from the reality on the ground. I think that the ruling party is trying to eliminate the voice of Rakhine politicians from parliament.”
In Shan state in Myanmar’s north, peaceful townships have also seen elections cancelled.
“There are no armed conflicts in our area,” said Saw Hlaing, village administrator from Kyaukphyu Lay village tract in Shan state’s Nam Sam township. “There are no protests against the election by any armed groups.”
Saw Hlaing, who oversees voting for 889 voters in five villages said: “They have canceled it for no good reason.”
Favoring the ruling party?
Htin Kyaw, chairman of the Shan state election commission, said nearly 100,000 voters lost their voting rights under the decisions announced for the 2020 election.
Nandar Hla Myint, spokesman for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) said UEC should reconsider the decision to “cancel the election in opposition parties’ stronghold townships.”
“There are so many shortcoming in this decision, we can’t have a regular election anymore,” he said.
Ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) Monywa Aung Shin rejected the accusations that UEC is biased toward the ruling NLD.
“The NLD never put pressure on the UEC,” he told RFA.
“I reject the accusations that NLD cancel elections in township where it cannot win,” added Monywa Aung Shin. “We might not win in 2020 elections, although we won in 2015.”
Sai Kyaw Nyunt, secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, told RFA the cancellations "will critically weaken Rakhine and Shan parties in the Union parliament … the same for state and regional parliaments.”
“Ethnic parties are participating in the political process because they don’t want to fight for their rights with violence and bearing arms. If the ruling government keeps crippling them in the political process, I am concerned that they might be inclined to seek violent ways.”
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe told RFA the UEC erred in doing things differently this year thn in 2015.
“They held discussions prior to cancelations in the elections in 2015. They invited all political parties, government ministries and department heads to a workshop to decide whether to cancel the election,” he said.
"In 2015, the decision was representative. This year, the UEC made the decision alone. They mainly gave the excuse that the military and home affairs ministry cannot guarantee safety during the election, but they didn’t give detailed information on why they had to cancel,” said Maung Maung Soe.
Thailand-based Myanmar analyst David Mathieson told RFA “the government keeps fumbling the preparations for this election, and it’s really being noticed in areas that are experiencing armed conflict.”
“I think there’s a real sense of frustration in Rakhine state, but also in other parts of the country where there’s been partial cancellations, in Kachin and in Shan state, and a real kind of blowback in the sense that there’s a lot of ethnic parties especially that are crying foul, that are saying this is actually trying to marginalize some of their democratic aspirations,” he said in an interview.
“They should be explaining to the media on why they had canceled in these townships and when the election could be held to replace the lost seats,” said Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, executive director of the polling group the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) .
The NLD is seeking reelection after taking power from the pro-military USDP in the last national vote held in 2015. The stiffest competition will again be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put forward 1,129 candidates.
Reported by Phyu Phyu Khine, Waiyan Moe Myint, Thiha Tun and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.