Calls grow for suspending election in northern Rakhine amid clashes and pandemic

Candidates running for election in northern Rakhine state are calling for a postponement of local voting amid concerns about ongoing clashes and a fresh outbreak of Covid-19. 

So far, the Union Election Commission (UEC) has not announced any plans to suspend polling, despite the deteriorating security situation in the region.

This has led some candidates to speak out in favour of waiting until conditions improve.

“In a time when people are living in fear, we can’t run campaigns. I don’t see us being able to focus on this election under the current circumstances,” said Tun Win, an Arakan National Party (ANP) candidate in Kyauktaw township. 

“If we can’t have some sort of stability, this will affect the current political situation and our representation will be lost,” said ANP candidate Tun Win

The biggest problem, he said, is that there is little interest in the election at a time when fighting between the military and the Arakan Army continues to force thousands to flee their homes

According to the Sittwe-based Rakhine Ethnics Congress, more than 220,000 people had been displaced by the clashes as of October 1. Hundreds more have been killed by indiscriminate attacks.

Tun Win said he hoped the conflict would be resolved soon so that local people can vote without worries about their safety.

“This is extremely important during the election period. If we can’t have some sort of stability, this will affect the current political situation and our representation will be lost,” he said.

Fellow ANP candidate Khin Saw Wai, who is running to represent the constituency of Rathedaung in the state parliament, echoed this sentiment.

“I would like to see the ongoing clashes stop so that we can have a fair election on a national level,” she said.

“If there’s no campaigning, no going around or going to homes, what is the point?” asked USDP candidate Htun Hla Sein 

Maung Thar Phyu, a candidate for the Arakan Front Party (AFP), also expressed concern that the situation on the ground would adversely impact the outcome of the election.

“When our state selects its candidates, I don’t want it to be a case of candidates getting selected because there are no other options. We want candidates that the public willingly chooses,” he said.

An Arakan Front Party (AFP) signboard in Sittwe (Phadu Tun Aung/Myanmar Now) 

Htun Hla Sein, a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate contesting in Maungdaw township, said the election should be postponed.

“Whether it’s the parliamentary candidate or someone assigned by them, if there’s no campaigning, no going around or going to homes, what is the point?” he said, referring to restrictions on campaign activities imposed by the Ministry of Health and Sports to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

Candidates in nine townships in northern Rakhine state and southern Chin state haven’t even been able to engage in online campaigning due to a year-long shutdown of internet services in these areas.

Although access to the internet has recently been restored, candidates complain that connections are still so slow that it has been impossible to engage with voters on Facebook or other social media platforms. 

“If there’s no election, the rights of the public are being violated,” said ANP chair Thar Htun Hla

All of this means that holding an election now would be meaningless, according to Aung Thaung Shwe, an independent candidate running in Buthidaung township.

“An election that didn’t include the public wouldn’t be a fair one. It wouldn’t represent the public. That’s why the government has to foster ways for the public to be more involved,” he said.

If the election goes ahead as planned, he added, it will be as bad as the notorious 2008 referendum, which was held a week after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady delta region, killing tens of thousands of people.

But not everyone agrees that the election should be put on hold. 

Responding to comments by a UEC spokesperson who said during a press conference in September that voting might be suspended in two townships in Rakhine state, ANP chair Thar Htun Hla said that such a move would be a violation of voters’ rights.

“If there’s no election, there won’t be members of parliament to represent the public. If that happens, the well-being and the rights of the public are being violated,” he said.

Candidates for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), meanwhile, declined to comment when asked about the election situation in northern Rakhine.

Rakhine state currently has 440 candidates running for seats in the state and national legislatures in the 2020 election, including 399 candidates from 18 political parties and 41 independents.

The NLD and the USDP are contesting in 64 constituencies, the ANP in 62, the UDP in 51 and the AFP in 42.

The UEC says Rakhine state, with a population of more than 3 million, has 1,648,737 eligible voters according to the 2014 census.

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