How Will Arakan’s Politics Move Beyond a Tumultuous 2020?

Currently, it cannot be denied that the military frame is wider than the political frame in Arakan State. More surprisingly, the civilian government, which claimed to prioritise national reconciliation, has not tried to end the ongoing civil war through political means.

21 Oct 2020

By Min Htee | DMG
Rancor and dissatisfaction are seen among the people of Arakan State regarding the Union Election Commission (UEC) announcement cancelling elections in several Arakan State townships. Especially people’s voices are getting louder but no significant actions or remarks have been made by Arakan political parties.
With just 23 days until Election Day, the UEC on October 16 announced 15 townships in the nation would see voting cancelled entirely. Nine of those townships are in Arakan State, and several wards and village-tracts across four other townships in the state will also be denied the chance to vote.
That leaves just four townships where elections will be held in full: Gwa, Thandwe, Ramree and Manaung.
Criticisms of the breakdown of voting and non-voting townships in Arakan State are growing, with many noting a partisan component to the divide: Thandwe District in southern Arakan State is considered a stronghold for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), and it is the district most unaffected by the UEC announcement of poll cancellations.
If we look at the 2015 election, the parliamentary seats in Gwa, Taungup, Thandwe and Manaung townships were won by the NLD. Only in Ramree Township, the Arakan-based Arakan National Party (ANP) was victorious.
Not long after Election Day 2015, the trouble began: The NLD refused a demand by the ANP that it be allowed to form the state government, given that it had won a majority of seats across Arakan State’s 17 townships, with roughly only the southern third of the state won by NLD candidates.
In the years since, it has become clear that the current Arakan State government has not gained the support of the majority of Arakanese people. Perceptions that the leadership in Sittwe is a mere puppet government have fueled discontent, and no doubt contributed to the outbreak of all out war between the military and Arakan Army in late 2018. The conflict has only grown in intensity since it began.
Whatever political mandates the Arakan State government may have claimed when it was sworn in more than four years ago has narrowed, if not disappeared, in the eyes of the public.
Arakan State in 2021 and Beyond
Due to the conflicts that have happened during the NLD government’s term, hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes. There are many issues still to be resolved due to the Muslim conflict in Arakan State. Likewise, because of the clashes in Arakan State, there are human rights violations; civilians who have died while in Tatmadaw custody; entire villages torched; and casualties due to landmines, stray bullets, and indiscriminate artillery shelling. These are all major challenges that people are facing currently.
The present Union government on March 23, 2020, declared the Arakan Army to be a terrorist organisation, and the Tatmadaw has carried out aggressive military operations in Arakan State. The Union Government shut down internet access in northern Arakan State and Chin State’s Paletwa Township on June 21, 2019. For more than one year, there was effectively a news blackout. On August 2, 2020, the government restored mobile internet access, but that restoration has only provided users with a 2G network, with connections so slow as to be almost useless.
Currently, it cannot be denied that the military frame is wider than the political frame in Arakan State. More surprisingly, the civilian government, which claimed to prioritise national reconciliation, has not tried to end the ongoing civil war through political means. Instead, it encouraged the Tatmadaw to take the fight to the AA after declaring it as a terrorist organisation, reducing trust between the NLD government and the Arakan people. The anger of the Arakan people has been stoked.
Arakan State has been generating a lot of revenue for the Union, but the benefits for Arakan State are still negligible. Myanmar’s main problem — the need to establish a federal system that can guarantee equality and self-determination in ethnic areas — can be solved only through political means, for which the democratic frame needs to be wider in order to speak and discuss.
While the complex conflicts in Arakan State urgently need to be solved, the cancellation of elections in most townships not only stifles the representation of Arakan people, but portends the demise of democracy in Arakan State beyond 2020.
This writer judges it to be an extreme use of power by the central government and/or the UEC in their decision to cancel elections in Arakan State without doing enough research and observation. I think the political parties and the UEC should have made more discussions geared toward holding the elections despite adverse circumstances. Or, if the government is serious about equality, it should have negotiated with the two warring groups to temporarily suspend fighting in order for elections to happen.
It could also have invited the media to the places that have been declared as not in a condition to hold elections in order to understand the real situation on the ground. However, the government turned its back on all these possibilities and measures, and decided to take the townships out of the election. That has made building trust between the government and Arakanese people very difficult.   
Another point to take into consideration is the future role of Arakanese political parties. How will they continue to hold political power? It will be up to these Arakan-based political parties to decide whether they will participate in the remaining constituencies allowed to hold elections, and then the parties must determine how they will proceed beyond 2020.
Political preparations are required that consider how the interests of the Arakan people will be looked after. Because the situation in Arakan State could get worse, Arakanese political parties should have shrewd political thinking beyond 2020. Only then will they be able to be at the forefront of Arakan’s politics and the people will offer more support.
This writer thinks one party alone will not be able to form a government beyond 2020 under the current situation. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see how the party that gets the majority of votes chooses to ally itself. If the winning party forms an alliance with the Tatmadaw representatives, which have already got power under the Constitution, there will be more power for the government and it is likely that the Tatmadaw could take the upper hand in obtaining power.
The Arakan State situation could deteriorate in 2021 and beyond. My advice to Arakan political parties is that now is the time to prepare for the worst and also to make the best of a situation in which their political base of support is unable to vote in elections next month. The Arakan people are also required to view their differences as an opportunity and overcome their challenges hand in hand with Arakan’s political parties.