‘Our voice has been killed’ – Rakhine’s smaller ethnic groups shut out of political process by vote cancellations 

The Union Election Commission’s decision to cancel voting in numerous areas, mostly in Rakhine state, is likely to further consolidate power in the hands of Myanmar’s Bamar majority and will decrease political representation for ethnic minorities in areas affected by conflict.

Voting has been partially or fully cancelled in all but four of seventeen townships in Rakhine, where fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw has killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 people since late 2018.

The UEC said insecurity prevented elections from being held freely or fairly in the cancelled areas. The cancellations in Rakhine state have stripped some 1.2m people, or nearly three quarters of Rakhine’s registered voters, of their right to vote and mean 36 out of 63 local and national seats in the state will be empty next year.

An estimated 600,000 Rohingya in Rakhine also remain excluded from voting under discriminatory citizenship laws, as do more than 730,000 who fled to Bangladesh from military-led mass killings in 2017.

Observers have said that feelings of political exclusion among ethnic Rakhine people could increase support for the AA and throw fuel on a conflict that has already sparked some of the most intense fighting Myanmar has seen since it began political reforms in 2010.

The state’s smaller ethnic minorities, including the Mro, Thet, Daingnet, Khami, Maramagyi, and Kaman, are doubly vulnerable to political marginalisation. For them, the cancellations have further extinguished chances of being represented in Naypyitaw.

“Our ethnic issues were already disappearing from the discussion in parliament,” said San Ma Nyo, a member of the Mro National Democracy Party’s central executive committee. “Now with these cancellations, our voice has been killed. The cancellations will lead to distrust and disappointment in party politics among our people.”

The cancellations primarily affect the state’s northern and central townships, and have been widely criticised for targeting areas where the Arakan National Party, which draws most of its support from Rakhine voters, was likely to win. Of the 36 cancelled seats in the state, all but three are in areas where the ANP won in 2015.

For smaller ethnic groups, who are often concentrated in the same townships, the cancellations easily cut large proportions of them out of the democratic process and mean smaller ethnic parties with fewer candidates have lost their chance to compete entirely in the state.

The Mro National Democracy Party had put forth four candidates, all of whose constituencies were fully cancelled, as were the constituencies in Rakhine where the Mro National Party and Mro National Development Party had each stood three candidates. The Daingnet National Development Party and the Khami National Development Party also contested three constituencies each in Rakhine state where voting was cancelled.

These parties already faced enormous obstacles to meaningful political representation before the cancellations. Under the 2008 constitution, parties must field at least three candidates to avoid being deregistered.

But smaller ethnic communities often do not constitute a majority even in the townships where they are most densely populated, making it difficult to win any seats.

In 2015, although 55 ethnic parties across the country contested seats in the Union Parliament, only ten won any seats. In Rakhine, the ANP was the only party to win seats.

Boosted by Rakhine nationalist support, the ANP won 22 seats in the Union Parliament — more than any other ethnic party in the country — and 23 of 35 elected seats in Rakhine’s state legislature.

But other ethnic parties in Rakhine fared poorly, capturing only 1% of the state’s votes between them.

“Even if smaller ethnic parties were to run for more than a thousand years under the current electoral system, we wouldn’t win a single representative,” said Shwe Bo Sein, spokesperson for the Khami Force Group Foundation, a humanitarian aid group based in Rakhine’s Ponnagyun township.

With minimal chances of winning, smaller ethnic communities often stake their hopes in larger ethnic parties — either through formal party alliances or direct votes — to represent them. This year, even that is not possible.

“We’ve lost the right to vote for allied parties or a party that can promote the development of Rakhine state, and I feel like our ethnic group has been excluded from the country,” said Shwe Bo Sein.

For the Maramagyi and Thet, who do not have their own parties, the cancellations are yet another stumbling block in their fight for representation.

“Our hopes disappeared with the Union Election Commission announcement,” said Win Myat of the Maramagyi Youth Network in Sittwe. “We had planned to vote for a Rakhine ethnic party, hoping for some changes for our people.” He now fears that no one will look out for Maramagyi interests.

Many Thet people had also planned to support Rakhine ethnic parties, said Soe Naing of Thet Youth Network in Buthidaung township. He now feels abandoned.

“I am worried that we will experience more intense conflict because of the cancellations,” he said. “Who will speak out for our people and take responsibility for our affairs?”

“For the next five years, there won’t be any change for our ethnic group,” he added.

The Kaman, who mostly live in Thandwe, Ramree, and Sittwe townships, were less affected by the cancellations. But Tin Hlaing Win, general secretary of the Kaman National Development Party, fears the minority will still lose out as a result of other ethnic parties being disadvantaged by the cancellations.

The Kaman, a Muslim minority, have suffered decades of state-sponsored religious discrimination, which has only worsened since communal violence erupted in 2012.

“I hope that in the election, ethnic parties will win a majority of seats in their states. I believe they will stand for all ethnic people in the country,” said Tin Hlaing Win, who is running for a seat in Thandwe township. “The government should rethink the cancelled areas in Rakhine and hold elections as soon as possible.”

Many members of smaller ethnic groups live in rural and mountainous areas in the state’s northern townships, where conflict between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw has damaged their livelihoods and left them caught in the crossfire.

“We can’t travel freely and daily life is unsafe,” said San Ma Nyo of the Mro National Democracy Party. Many Mro rely on foraging in the forest, where they must now risk landmines and conflict-related violence, she said.

In March, three Mro women disappeared while searching for vegetables near their village in Maungdaw township. And in October, two Mro women were injured and one killed after stepping on a landmine in Ponnagyun township.

“Minority ethnic groups are among the first to be affected by the war… because we are living in mountainous areas,” said Shwe Bo Sein of the Khami Force Group Foundation. “Sometimes we get threatened by both sides of the conflict.”

In October 2019, stray bullets hit a monastery compound in a Khami village in Kyauktaw township, injuring five people, while in February of this year, artillery fire hit a school in a Khami village in Buthidaung township, injuring twenty-one students.

Local government administration has also collapsed in parts of the state, with administrators resigning en masse because they feared for their safety.

Shwe Bo Sein worries it will only get worse. “The government administration is currently broken in the areas where we live,” he said. “How will we be safe? How can we identify who is administering our areas? We will face a lot of threats in the coming years.”

For Sein Hla Kyaw, general secretary of the Daingnet Literature and Culture Association in Minbya township, problems like these can’t be addressed unless smaller ethnic groups have political representation.

“If the next government does something, whether it is good for our people or not, we will face its effects without having had a chance to speak out,” he said.

“If the government listens to the people’s voices and needs, achieving peace is possible,” he added. “But now, everything we’ve hoped for has become meaningless.”

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