Political Gamesmanship Behind Designation of New Districts in Myanmar

Myanmar has descended into chaos since last year’s coup, with armed conflict, blackouts and soaring food prices taking a heavy toll on people across the country.

While its administrative mechanism is collapsing, the regime is trying to add 42 districts to the country. Myanmar currently has 74 districts nationwide, and would have 116 if the plan for 42 new districts materialises.

27 Apr 2022


Written by Gaung

Myanmar has descended into chaos since last year’s coup, with armed conflict, blackouts and soaring food prices taking a heavy toll on people across the country.

While its administrative mechanism is collapsing, the regime is trying to add 42 districts to the country. Myanmar currently has 74 districts nationwide, and would have 116 if the plan for 42 new districts materialises.

Seven Districts in Arakan State

Under the proposal, Ann and Taungup would be upgraded to districts, Arakan State military council spokesman U Hla Thein told reporters on March 8. Ann District would comprise Ann and Myebon townships, and Taungup District would comprise Taungup and Manaung townships, according to U Hla Thein. 

Arakan State currently has five districts: Sittwe, Maungdaw, Mrauk-U, Thandwe and Kyaukphyu.

Arakanese politicians and observers have hypothesised that the regime intends to add new districts ahead of its plan to introduce a revised electoral system based on Proportional Representation (PR) for upcoming elections.

“The regime must have a reason to add new districts,” said the chairman of the Arakan Front Party, Dr. Aye Maung. “The PR system will be based on districts. That’s why the regime has added new districts.”

Myanmar has held three general elections using a First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system under its current constitution; in 2010, 2015, and 2020.

The regime is planning to hold elections next year, after it annulled the results of the 2020 general election, citing electoral fraud. Following the coup, the junta-appointed Union Election Commission (UEC) met with several political parties, most of which notably did not win a single seat in the 2020 general election. They have been pushing for a switch to PR, which would increase the likelihood that they would win seats in the next vote.

Under the PR system envisioned by the regime, voters would vote for parties, not candidates. In an election pitting three parties against one another, the parties would split seats in proportion to the share of the votes each won in the election.

Observers believe the regime has opted for a PR system as a move to maintain the military’s grip on power in Myanmar for years to come.

“The regime is unnecessarily adding new districts while there are pressing issues to handle. … [The regime] is intentionally sowing confusion,” said former Lower House lawmaker U Pe Than from Myebon Township. 

“[The regime] is dishonest because it already holds 25 percent of seats, and it is trying to grab more seats,” he added, referring to the military’s constitutionally guaranteed allotment of one-quarter of seats in all of the country’s legislatures.

DMG was unable to obtain comment from regime spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun about criticisms of the planned switch to PR. At a regime press conference on March 24, UEC member U Khin Maung Oo said that in the coming election, a PR system would be used in electing the Lower House, and FPTP would be used to elect the Upper House.

Local Politics in the District Prospects Taungup and Ann 

Looking back at the previous election results, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) showed entrenched strength in Ann Township, and Taungup Township was, until 2020, considered a stronghold of the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the Arakan National Party (ANP) won the 2020 election in Taungup and made inroads in Ann, as a result, the local political trajectory in these areas has become more uncertain.

Myebon Township, meanwhile, has always favoured Arakan parties based on Arakanese nationalism. The USDP’s victories in Ann Township are largely attributed to it being a military-dominated constituency. Therefore, the relocation of Myebon Township to Ann is considered to be a weakening of nationalist forces.

“The nationalist forces will be weakened if the map is mixed with the USDP-strong Ann Township. The same is true in Taungup and Manaung,” U Pe Then, the ex-lawmaker, criticised.

Farther south, Thandwe and Gwa townships are in Thandwe District, where the USDP will be more likely to win if the NLD does not run in the next election. 

A PR system is likely to benefit the USDP the most, but it is also popular with smaller political parties, which are more prone to losing elections under a FPTP system. 

The military automatically holds 25 percent of seats in parliament, leaving only 75 percent of the seats up for grabs. On a national scale, that means under the PR system, even if a single party were to win two-thirds of votes, it would be required to build a coalition government. In Myanmar, there is no such thing as a landslide victory under the PR system.

The military junta wants a coalition government, as do many minority parties and some Arakan parties.

“This country is suited to a coalition government because there are different ethnic groups,” said Dr. Aye Maung. “Only when there is a coalition government will there be ethnic groups like Kachin, Chin and Arakanese included in the government. If the political parties on the mainland win the election, it will not be possible to say anything.”

In Arakan State, opinions are mixed on the combination of district expansion and a change to PR.

“If Ann Township is to be district-level for political gain, it will not be a good result,” Ko Myo Lwin, a resident of Ann town, told DMG. “While the regime is trying to use the PR system, Ann is also a stronghold of military bases, so it is safe to say the military-dominated areas are being politically exploited.”

Others point out that there are administrative imperatives that come with name and status changes of the sort being proposed by the junta.

“Expansion of districts and towns, these are not just names. According to the budget, we have to build office buildings and staff quarters that are suitable for the district level,” said U Myo Kyaw, a top official with the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD).

Elections Ahead

Interest in elections has waned among the Arakanese people, who now largely look to the Arakan Army for leadership. 

For its part, the junta appears to understand that it must avoid the mass cancellation of voting in several Arakan State constituencies that marred the 2020 election and contributed to the disaffection that many Arakanese now feel toward party-parliamentary politics. With security concerns cited, the 2020 elections were cancelled in the entireties of nine Arakan State townships, as well as parts of four other townships in the state.

In the previous three general elections, voting was held in 325 out of Myanmar’s 330 townships in 2010 and 2015, but only in 315 townships in 2020.

“If elections are not held nationwide, the essence of democracy and elections will diminish. Therefore, I would like to say that the government is working to ensure that the next election is held across the country,” Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, a spokesperson for the State Administration Council, told reporters at a press conference in Naypyidaw on March 24.

Whether the people are interested or not, in Arakan State and Myanmar as a whole, it seems likely that elections will go forward next year. Voter apathy and the participation of fewer political parties is not something that the junta will fret over, and in fact these election dynamics would be to the military proxy USDP’s benefit — as would be the PR system currently in the works. 

“The main thing is that no matter what anyone says, the military council is preparing for their long-term rule,” the ALD’s U Myo Kyaw said. “The military council is holding a sham election to rule the country for a long time.”