Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army, will hold voting in four townships of its self-administered region for the first time when general elections are held later this year, a spokesman for the UWSA said Tuesday.
The roughly 30,000-strong UWSA, led by ethnic Chinese commanders, will cooperate with the central government to hold voting in four townships in areas under its control along Myanmar’s border with China, said USWA spokesman Nyi Rang from the group’s liaison office in Lashio, eastern Shan state.
“Of the six townships [in the region], two are under the control of the central government, [and] the remaining four are under the UWSA’s control,” he said. “I’ve received information that our head office will work with the government in holding general elections in these townships.”
Residents of the townships could not participate in previous national elections because of security concerns, he said.
Myanmar’s 2008 constitution granted the roughly 500,000 Wa the right to administer what is known as Special Region 2, comprising the six townships of Hopang, Mongmao, Pangwaun, Matman, Namphan, and Pangsang (Pangkham) in northern and eastern Shan state.
Voting was not held in Pangsang, Mongmao, Pangwaun, and Namphan townships during general elections in 2010 and 2015, because the country's Union Election Commission (UEC) said it could not conduct free and fair elections in the areas, according to a report in the online journal The Irrawaddy.
UEC chairman Hla Thein went to Pangsang, a border town in Myanmar’s eastern Shan state that serves as UWSA headquarters in the Wa self-administered region, on Feb. 27 to engage in negotiations with top ethnic army leaders for general elections to be held in Mongmao, Pangwaun, Panghsang, and Namphan townships.
The UEC, which organizes and oversees Myanmar’s elections and vets parliamentary candidates and political parties, has not yet made an announcement about the decision. Hla Thein told RFA Tuesday that he had no comment.
The commission plans to hold national elections in the country’s 330 townships in November.
It is unclear, however, whether the head office of the UWSA’s political wing, the United Wa State Party (UWSP) will allow political parties other than the Wa ethnic party to contest in the elections in the townships.
At a meeting in late February in Pangsang, Hla Thein, other government representatives, and UWSA/UWSP vice president Xiao Mingliang pledged to work together to implement procedures needed to hold the 2020 general elections in the group’s territory, The Irrawaddy said.
‘Participation is weak’
Nyi Nat, a lawmaker from Matman township in the Wa self-administered region, said he welcomed the UWSP’s decision to hold elections in areas under the group's control.
“We gladly welcome the elections in four townships under the UWSP because political participation is weak there,” he said. “Because there have been no elections held there, we have not heard the voices of the people.”
Nyi Nat ran as a Wa National Unity Party candidate in the country’s 2015 general elections and won a parliamentary seat, but he later left the party and became an independent lawmaker.
Townships with lawmakers can present their issues to the central government through the parliament and secure their rights, while townships where voters cannot elect representatives have no way of being heard, he said.
The Wa National Unity Party, Wa Democratic Party, and Wa Liberal Democratic Development Party are active in the self-administrative area and are reportedly joining forces to form a single Wa National Party ahead of the 2020 elections.
Aye Kyaw of Open Myanmar Initiative, a watchdog group for parliamentary procedure, said Wa officials must ensure that it will be safe for voters to cast ballots.
“If they are holding elections in their territory, the governing body of the region should be responsible for security,” he said.
“It depends on the will of the Wa people,” he said. “If they can ensure security and hold elections in the region, it could happen. But if they can’t guarantee security, elections will never be held there — and not just in 2020.”
The UWSA was one of the armed ethnic groups that refused to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) brokered by the former military-backed government in October 2015.
The ethnic faction has not been involved in any clashes with government troops in recent years. It has, however, been accused of producing and selling illegal narcotics in the region it controls along Myanmar’s border with China and Thailand.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.