‘The election won’t be fair’ – smaller parties in Rakhine severely hampered by pandemic, conflict and internet ban

Political parties in Rakhine state say they are unable to reach voters as the two-month campaign period begins for the November 8 election because of an internet ban, armed clashes, and a lockdown aimed at curbing Covid-19. 

The lesser-known smaller parties and independent candidates say they are set to suffer most from travel and campaign restrictions across the state, which has recorded a sharp increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. 

“An election held under such circumstances cannot be a fair election,” said Aung Thaung Shwe, an independent candidate running in Buthidaung township, which has been hit by recent clashes between the military and the Arakan Army as well as a ban on access to 3G internet.

“Firstly, the clashes need to stop for the election to take place,” he told Myanmar Now. “We need to have access to the internet. IDPs need to be provided with a proper solution… when it comes to food and shelter.” 

“I believe that we should proceed with the election only after these problems are taken care of,” he added. 

The government blocked access to the internet in several townships in Rakhine last year, citing security concerns. It has now restored 2G access, but it is not possible to send or receive photos or videos at those speeds. 

Parties will also be hampered by a stay-at-home order across most of the state and a nighttime curfew brought in as Covid-19 infections began to rise in Sittwe on August 21. 

Myanmar has recorded 1,610 confirmed cases as of September 8, with 565 found in Rakhine.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) has ordered political parties to follow health ministry restrictions on campaigning to prevent the spread of the disease.  

Khaing Pray Soe, secretary of the Arakan National Party, said the party has not yet started campaigning because of the restrictions. 

“We’re not ready because some candidates haven’t even received their candidate cards and we can’t go to certain places,” he said.

Because people are still allowed to go to work during the day, his party needs to campaign in residential areas in the evening, he added, but the curfew makes that impossible too. 

“It’s true that there is a pandemic but the curfew isn’t needed,” he said.

He also said travel restrictions between different towns and villages are posing difficulties. 

“How can we find a common ground between the orders by the UEC and the regional government? The commission lets us campaign but the regional government doesn’t allow us to go into villages.” 

Maung Thar Phyu, an Arakan Front Party candidate running for an Upper House seat for Buthidaung and Maungdaw, said he would persevere despite the difficulties. 

“We’ll go to the places that we’re allowed to… our social media campaigning has been weakened a bit because we have no internet access, so we’ll hand out pamphlets instead,” he said. 

“We’ll do everything we can… and follow the rules.”

Eighteen political parties and 380 candidates are competing in Rakhine. The restrictions are likely to hit smaller parties – which need to reach voters directly to ensure they are remembered at the ballot box – much harder than the incumbent National League for Democracy (NLD). 

Asked about the restrictions, Soe Lay, from the NLD’s regional central executive committee, said there was nothing specific he wanted to say.

‘Not allowed’

Other parties say they are holding off on campaigning while they figure out ways to reach voters.

An Arakan League for Democracy spokesperson said the party is due to hold a meeting to discuss potential campaigns.

Aye Win, a candidate running in Maungdaw for the Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), said the party will also have an internal meeting to discuss how campaigning would go. 

“The rules make it difficult,” he said. 

Aye Win – who is a Rohingya – faces even more obstacles in November, as does his party.

The vast majority of Rakhine’s Rohingya have been stripped of the right to vote, and he is the only DHRP candidate running after three others, all Rohingya, were barred from competing. 

Thurein Tun, Rakhine’s regional election commission secretary, said canvassing for votes at people’s homes was also banned because of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

“What they can do is they can walk past the houses and leave pamphlets on the fences,” he said. “Or leave them in public places so they can be readily taken.” 

“That’s all. You’re not allowed to do pretty much anything else,” he said.

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