As Myanmar gears up for general elections on Nov. 8, it remains unclear whether voting will be held in war-ravaged northern Rakhine state, where fighting between government forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) has raged for 20 months, leaving scores of civilians dead and displacing around 200,000 others.
The Union Election Commission (UEC), which organizes and manages Myanmar’s elections, is waiting for a determination by the military-controlled defense and home affairs ministries as to whether it is safe enough to hold balloting in Rakhine. However, ethnic parties, such as the predominant Arakan National Party (ANP), argue that constituencies that have borne the brunt of the armed conflict need their representation in government and that voters’ trust in the democratic system will erode if polling is cancelled.
In the last general elections in 2015, balloting was not held in some areas affected by ethnic conflict. Though voting was held in Rakhine state at the time, the minority Rohingya Muslim population was disenfranchised, with officials invalidating their temporary documents prior to going to the polls. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya still living in Rakhine, despite military-led crackdowns on their communities in 2016 and 2017 that prompted more than 800,000 to flee across the border and into Bangladesh, will not have the right to vote in the 2015 elections.
In the meantime, the Rakhine State Election Subcommission has prepared nearly all of the state’s roughly 2,600 polling stations for balloting by 1.6 million eligible voters in Rakhine, should elections be held there. Commission chairwoman Tin Hlaing spoke with reporter Soe Soe Aung from RFA’s Myanmar Service about the body’s preparations for the voting. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: What has the Rakhine State Election Subcommission done so far?
Tin Hlaing: The Rakhine State Election Subcommission has prepared to hold elections in all 17 townships in Rakhine according to its policy. We have 2,596 polling stations. We also have prepared materials for these polling stations.
RFA: Many people in Rakhine state do not have national ID cards now because they fled their homes due to the armed conflict. Many houses have burned down as well. How will they be able to vote without ID cards or other documents?
Tin Hlaing: We can’t say for now. It wil depend on the situation on the ground during election time. We have made a list of voter names, and we have to check it again with village and township heads. We can only think of possible ways right now.
RFA: Some have asked election officials to set up polling stations at internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Is this feasible?
Tin Hlaing: We have government-recognized IDP camps and others set up by civil society organizations. We already have polling station lists according to townships and have asked for materials only for those stations. We have to ask for a detailed list of materials — that’s why we can’t arrange to set up polling stations at all IDP camps. It will depend on the security situation on the ground at that time. If we wanted to set up polling stations at the IDP camps, then we would have to report it to the Union Election Commission, and the UEC would decide on it.
RFA: Which Rakhine township concerns you the most in terms of security?
Tin Hlaing A: I didn’t say we are concerned about security. I said security is important. We can’t decide where to hold the elections. Security-related ministries or departments, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, will decide according to the on-the-ground situations, and the UEC will announce the locations of polling stations when the election date gets closer. In 2015, township names and polling station locations were announced in October for the November elections. Now, it is still too early to announce them.
RFA: Can you guarantee that elections will be held in Rakhine?
Tin Hlaing: The Rakhine State Election Subcommission cannot guarantee it. We can’t decide whether the elections will be held or where they will be held.
Reported by Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.