Concerns Over Election Violence, COVID-19 Spread in Run-up to Myanmar Polls


2020-11-01
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myanmar-nld-usdp-election-road-rally-magwe-oct27-2020.jpg Supporters of Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy party (in red) face off against supporters of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (in green) as police look on during an election campaign rally in central Myanmar's Magwe region, Oct. 27, 2020.
Photo courtesy of a citizen journalist

As Myanmar heads into the final week of campaigning for Nov. 8 polls, NGOs and election authorities are warning of increasing violence between supporters of rival parties and violations of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

The emerging democracy goes to the polls on Nov. 8 with some 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties vying for more than 1,100 seats in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures in the nation of 54 million people.

In a warning about pre-election violence, the New Myanmar Foundation issued a report on Oct. 30 tallying more than 40 incidents of electoral violence since mid-August, compared to 28 reported occurrences during the previous general elections in 2015.

The report was issued a week after one man was killed and another stabbed in brawls between supporters of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and those of the military-aligned opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in northwestern Sagaing region.

Other recent violence includes an ethnic army’s abduction of three NLD candidates in Rakine state, a mass raid on the house of a member of the NLD ’s Myaing township executive committee in Magwe region, and the tossing of two unexploded hand grenades into the yard of the residence of the chairman of the Naypyidaw Election Subcommission.

An analysis of disputes and security conditions during this campaign points to possible further violence after election day, said Mya Nandar Thin, an election consultant at the New Myanmar Foundation.

“There could be a crisis such as ballot boxes are stolen in the last minutes before the election,” she said. “We assume there could be many kinds of problems or other unexpected incidents that occur near polling stations.”

The New Myanmar Foundation's survey was based on 450 reports and interviews with candidates, political parties, and civil society groups from more than 100 electoral townships, including ones experiencing armed conflict, such as western Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states.

“We are especially concerned about disputes and subsequent crises that will follow the election. … We should be prepared to mitigate the crises and disputes,” Mya Nandar Thin said.

The government should take measures to prevent any election-related disputes by deploying security forces and urging voters to cooperate with security personnel at polling stations, she added.

'More and worse disputes and protests'

Aye Kyaw, executive director of the Open Myanmar Initiative, said there likely would be more problems on the coming Election Day than here were during the 2015 vote.

“We also expect more and worse disputes and protests this year than there were in 2015,” he said.

This year’s election is being held amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen a resurgence in Myanmar since mid-August. Officials have forbidden large public campaign events, forcing party supporters to drive around cities and towns in road rallies.

The Ministry of Health and Sports has restricted electoral gatherings and campaign activities to a maximum of 50 people who must maintain a distance of six feet between them in well-ventilated areas.

On Thursday, the Union Election Commission (UEC), which oversees voting in Myanmar, warned political party supporters to adhere to the ministry’s guidelines during the remaining campaign period or risk arrest and prosecution.

Meanwhile, Myanmar will continue to grapple with enforcing restrictions and preventive measures to keep the COVID-19 virus from spreading as people head to crowded polling stations, especially in pandemic hotspots such as Rakhine state and the commercial hub Yangon.

On Friday, Myanmar registered 51,496 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 1,093 new ones, and 1,219 deaths.

Nonviolence policy

USDP spokesman Thein Tun Oo said his party is concerned about further violence in the coming days, and that candidates and supporters already have been subjected to harassment during the two-month campaign period.

“This is something we never seen before,” he said. “Even when we’ve walked into villages or towns without loudspeakers, some people blocked our way. They gathered in front of our motorcade, played loud music, and danced to block our way.”

“Judging from these on-the-ground situations, we are pretty concerned about what could happen during the time when the polling stations open and the end of the ballot counting,” he said.

More than 30 of the 90-some political parties fielding candidates in the elections have reportedly asked the military to intervene if there are incidents of voting fraud, said NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt.

“Some people are making accusations even before the elections,” he said. “It is very likely that these accusations will come true during the complicated election process.”

“We are strictly complying with the nonviolence policy to avoid conflicts, [and] we are trying our best to ensure that our supporters comply with that too,” he said.

Political analyst Maung Maung Soe said that disputes over the handling of advanced votes by members of the military could evolve into a major crisis during the election, but added that he didn’t believe the disputes would spark riots.”

The NLD is seeking reelection after taking power from the pro-military USDP in the last national vote held in 2015.

The stiffest competition again will be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put 1,129 candidates forward.

Reported by Nay Myo Htun and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Khin Khin Ei. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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