Decisions by Myanmar’s Union Election Commission to cancel Nov. 8 elections in dozens of townships, including in war-torn Rakhine state, without consulting local political groups will disenfranchise more than a million ethnic minority voters, Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The New York-based group said the UEC, which vets political candidates and oversees balloting in Myanmar, had failed to act with transparency in its decision to cancel voting in 15 townships and parts of 42 others—disenfranchising more than 1.5 million people out of Myanmar’s total 37.5 million eligible voters.
On Oct. 16, the UEC announced whole or partial cancellations in constituencies in Kachin, Karen, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan states, and in Bago Region, citing security concerns without providing details.
Days later, the UEC said the decisions were based on recommendations by the government, the defense and home affairs ministries, the military, and the police. The two ministries are controlled by the military.
On Tuesday, the UEC said it was suspending voting in 94 village tracts in Chin state’s Paletwa township, which has seen fighting from the Rakhine conflict.
“The Union Election Commission is making decisions affecting people’s right to choose their representatives without an iota of transparency,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in the statement.
“Myanmar’s election commission needs to fully explain the basis for its decisions on each of the affected townships, which affect the voting rights of 1.5 million largely ethnic minority people.”
HRW noted that the UEC also cancelled voting in parts of Bago region, and Kachin, Karen, Mon, and Shan states during the last general elections in 2015, which the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide, though it lost to an ethnic party in Rakhine state.
The 1.2 million Rakhine state voters disenfranchised in this year’s elections do not include some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims who are barred from voting because they are not considered citizens of Myanmar.
The UEC has disqualified a handful of Rohingya and Muslim candidates from running for parliamentary seats based on their parents’ lack of citizenship.
Ethnic parties appeal to UEC
Seven of the nine Rakhine townships where voting has been called off are strongholds of the ethnic Arakan National Party (ANP), while constituencies in Kachin and Shan states where voting has been cancelled were won mainly by minority parties in 2015.
A nearly two-year-long armed conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army(AA), a largely ethnic Rakhine force fighting for greater autonomy in the state, has left hundreds of civilians dead and displaced more than 226,000 others, according to an estimate by a local relief group. The troubled state has also been a COVID-19 hotspot since mid-August.
The UEC, which vets political candidates and oversees elections, has failed to discuss the on-the-ground situation with the Rakhine State Election Subcommission, HRW said.
“It is essential to consult with local political parties whenever the UEC is making a decision related to the election for that region,” said Ye Myo Hein, executive director of Tagaung Institute of Political Studies.
“They should have consulted with local political candidates about the situation on the ground, [but] they haven’t done anything,” he said.
Thurein Htut, secretary of Rakhine State Election Subcommission, said that the ANP had appealed to the UEC to review its decision to cancel elections in the affected townships.
“The UEC’s negotiation committee held a meeting with them,” he said. “We reviewed the conditions in all nine townships. We made a decision to allow the elections after reviewing their appeals.”
Other ethnic political parties in areas where voting has been suspended are appealing to election authorities, said NLD spokesman Monwya Aung Shin.
“The ethnic minority parties have appealed the decisions,” he said. “The UEC stated during a press conference that it will review the decisions. We just have to wait and see.”
‘A serious risk to democratization’
Ten Myanmar civil society organizations, meanwhile, issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on the Myanmar government and the UEC to reverse the decisions to disenfranchise ethnic voters and to ensure that people have the right to vote, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.
The groups include the Arakan Information Center, Free Expression Myanmar, Center for Social Integrity, Htoi Gender Foundation, Kachin State Women’s Network, SMILE Foundation, Tampadipa Institute, YMCA-Mandalay, Shwe Minn Thar Foundation-Myanmar, and the Mandalay Justice Law Firm.
The civil society groups also raised concerns over the censorship of opposition political parties and UEC restrictions on political broadcasts, which required parties to submit scripts of their campaign messages for review and editing before they were broadcast on state-run radio and television.
“Existing restrictions on political participation for voters and candidates as well as restrictions on free speech must be lifted in order for credible elections to be held,” the statement said. “Any failure to hold inclusive, free, and fair elections this November poses a serious risk to the democratization process as well as diversity and peace-building efforts across the country.”
The NLD is seeking reelection after taking power from the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the last national vote held in 2015.
Nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, are vying for more than 1,100 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
The stiffest competition again will be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put 1,129 candidates forward.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint and Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.Print