2020 Election Will Deepen Legitimacy Crisis in Arakan

Although the UEC has the legal authority to cancel or postpone voting in line with Section 10(f) of the UEC law, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the military have the informal power to influence those decisions politically. Thus, the cancellations raise questions as to whether the NLD and military have the political will to hold elections in Arakan.

28 Oct 2020

Elderly people in Thandwe Township cast their ballots in advance. (Photo - Myo Myint Zaw)

On October 16, the Union Election Commission (UEC) announced the total cancellation of voting in nine townships and partial cancellation in another four of the 17 townships in Arakan (also known as Rakhine) State. While the UEC justified the decision as based on reports and input from the government and security bodies, many politicians and political parties have questioned the extent of the UEC’s independence in decision-making regarding the cancellations.

The cancelled constituencies include areas where armed clashes have been minimal, including Pauktaw, Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Taungup, Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. The UEC also subsequently backtracked on conflict-hit Paletwa Township, where most village-tracts have since been ruled out for November 8, after initial indications that they would be allowed to vote. 

Two factors are essential for elections to occur: capacity and political will. Capacity refers to the situation on the ground before, during, and after elections, including the compiling of voter lists; the ability of candidates and political parties to freely campaign; safe access to polling places; neutral vote counting; and so on. In much of northern Arakan State, the capacity to hold elections freely and fairly is limited outside of most urban areas due to conflict dynamics between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. 

However, in terms of political will, elections in the six townships that have seen limited or no fighting may be seen as having been cancelled not due to a lack of capacity, but rather because the UEC lacked political will. Political will is political intention or desire; specifically, the firm commitment on the part of a government to follow through on a particular policy or action. 

Although the UEC has the legal authority to cancel or postpone voting in line with Section 10(f) of the UEC law, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and the military have the informal power to influence those decisions politically. Thus, the cancellations raise questions as to whether the NLD and military have the political will to hold elections in Arakan.

From a high-minded perspective, the NLD government might wish for elections to take place nationwide as the natural course of democracy, whereas the military may be interested in more “effective” governance (possibly a form of military rule like the one instituted in the Kokang region of Shan State in 2015). In terms of political interests, however, both the NLD and the military could be thinking that they will have better fortunes if there are no elections in most parts of Arakan State. If formidable ethnic political parties like the Arakan National Party (ANP) are absent or diminished in the Union Parliament, the NLD will have a greater advantage when lawmakers elect the president next year, with the ruling party looking likely to remain the legislature’s largest voting bloc. For the Tatmadaw, because the Constitution grants 25% of parliamentary seats to military appointees, any reduction in the number of seats filled with elected lawmakers increases its MPs’ relative power. 

In the Arakan State assembly, due to the cancellations, the combination of NLD representatives and military personnel will be a larger bloc than Arakan-based political parties. The diminution of Arakan parties in the state legislature means there will likely be fewer voices who criticise the NLD government and military, and speak out about weak performance, corruption, human rights violations and war crimes. 

The Arakan Army/United League of Arakan, as well as Arakan State-based political parties like the ANP, have expressed the aforementioned political will to support the holding of elections across all of Arakan State. In an interview with Chin Cable Network on July 25, the leader of the Arakan Army, General Twan Mrat Naing, said the AA would do its part to help elections take place in Arakan. And on September 1, in conjunction with two ethnic armed group allies, the AA/ULA announced a unilateral ceasefire until November 9 — the day after the election. (Granted, the abduction of three NLD candidates by the AA raises questions about whether the latter does genuinely want elections to proceed in the south of the state or not.) 

Arakan State-based parties including the ANP and the Arakan Front Party have initiated electoral campaigning to some degree, indicating political will to hold elections. Thus, the Arakan State election cancellations can reasonably be presumed to have been the outcome of insufficient political will mostly by state actors and their extensions.

The Weberian State and the Importance of Legitimacy in Arakan

According to 19th century sociologist Max Weber, the state is a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Out of the four main characteristics of the state — monopoly, legitimacy, force and territory — legitimacy is one of the most critical factors in an effectively functioning state. However, all of the post-1948 Myanmar (Burma) authorities have lacked legitimacy in Arakan, including the current government led by de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In every post-independence election (1951-52, 1956, 1960, 1990, 2010, 2015), Arakan-based political parties were the majority winners in the state, but were never allowed to install a local government.

Unlike most other parts of the country, until recent years Arakan enjoyed a recognised stability and “negative peace,” which the military termed a “white area,” since the post-1980s period. However, any hopes of legitimacy under this arrangement were frittered away by the tyrannical actions of successive governments that oppressed the people with the intensive use of despotic power. 

Legitimacy is the popular acceptance of a government, political regime or system of governance. While Weber articulated three types of legitimacy — traditional, charismatic and legal-rational — it can be achieved by two means in the modern world: electoral or performance-based legitimacy, as described by American political scientist Francis Fukuyuma. Myanmar in 2020, according to the Fragile State Index by the Fund for Peace, stands 22 out of 178 globally (Alert Status) and the lack of legitimacy will cause things to worsen in Arakan. The current NLD government is a minority-winning party in the Arakan State parliament, while the majority of people voted for the ANP in the last general election, in 2015. The NLD-installed, U Nyi Pu-led Arakan State government lacks not just electoral legitimacy but also performance legitimacy in terms of economic development, public relations, governance, IDPs management and so on. In fact, by most definitions it is an illegitimate government.

Looking ahead to the 2020 election, two-thirds of the population in Arakan (about 1.2 million people, according to the Rakhine State Election Watch Commission) will not be able to vote. This will not only render illegitimate the next Arakan State government and legislature, but will also raise questions about the legitimacy of the Naypyidaw government and Union Parliament in the post-2020 political landscape. In the period from 2016 to 2020, the Arakan State parliament can be considered a legitimate body as its members were elected by the majority of people and the most popularly elected party, the ANP, was able to make some decisions in the local parliament. But in the post-2020 election period, none of the state institutions, whether it be the Naypyidaw government, the bicameral Union Parliament, or the Arakan State government or legislature, will be a legitimate actor in Arakan State. Meanwhile, in terms of armed revolution, the Arakan Army/United League of Arakan has achieved popularity (a source of legitimacy) among Arakan people, meaning the AA is arguably a more legitimate power than the Myanmar military in Arakan State.

What Next?

As a result of election cancellations in most parts of Arakan State, we can first expect to see more militarisation of the territory than previously. As the military has already called for possible military rule in Arakan, it can be argued that the NLD government and military might have an informal agreement in countering the AA. Secondly, as a consequence of the lack of a legitimate institution like the 2016-2020 Arakan State parliament, the roles of CSOs and non-ruling political parties will become more important, with one prominent effect being the emergence of popular/people’s movements. 

The Arakan Students Union (Universities-Rangoon) has called for a referendum in Arakan State, but the idea is still in need of mass mobilisation and momentum. The ULA/AA could take more decisive actions, such as trying to show its might in the urban areas and its influential role in most parts of Arakan State; making greater efforts to delegitimatise the government and assert control over the government mechanism in the state; or making its goals more prominently known. Generally, most people in Arakan State would respond positively.

The political dynamism of Arakan State is difficult to distill, but it can be fundamentally understood as a clash between legitimate actors and powerful actors, with the former represented by the AA/ULA and ANP, and the latter being the NLD government and Myanmar military. In terms of arriving at resolution to the conflict, one of the involved parties needs to achieve both of the characteristics of the state discussed: power and legitimacy. If the AA/ULA is able to marshal enough military strength to counter the Myanmar military OR if Myanmar authorities establish more legitimacy than the AA or ANP, it will increase prospects for ending the conflict. However, in the short-run, none of the parties seems to have both factors, and a dash to the ceasefire table is a better option for all sides under the current circumstances. 

About the Author: Kyaw Lynn is a post-graduate student mastering in political science at the University of Yangon, as well as a freelance political analyst. He is also one of the founders of the Institute for Peace and Governance (IPG).