Over half of polling stations in Rakhine shut due to instability

A motorist rides past the campaign signboards of the Arakan National Party in Sittwe, Rakhine, on Oct 14, 2020.
A motorist rides past the campaign signboards of the Arakan National Party in Sittwe, Rakhine, on Oct 14, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

YANGON • More than half the polling stations initially planned in conflict-torn Rakhine for Myanmar's Nov 8 election will no longer operate, as parts of the state are too unstable for voting, the country's election committee has said.

The region - where most parliamentary seats are held by Rakhine nationalist opponents of Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi - has been beset by an ethnic insurgency that has intensified this year.

The ruling National League for Democracy said three of its candidates were abducted in Rakhine while campaigning last Wednesday. Police did not respond to requests for comment, and insurgents from the Arakan Army militant group made no statement.

Some areas "are not in a position to hold a free and fair election", the committee announced in a statement late on Friday.

There will be no voting in nine of 17 townships in Rakhine, according to the statement, while another four will have minimal voting.

"This has a huge impact on us. We have only a few spots for voting left," said Mr Myo Kyaw, a spokesman for the Arakan League for Democracy, one of the major parties in Rakhine.

"There is no such thing as a 100 per cent free and fair election. The election this year is worse than the others before it."

The ethnic Rakhine Arakan National Party's (ANP) secretary Tun Aung Kyaw said the decision to cancel the vote had been taken for political rather than security reasons.

"Most townships in Rakhine state where elections will not be held are areas the ANP would definitely win, so this is a deliberate ploy," he said, adding that it was discrimination against ethnic minorities.

In the last election in 2015, the ANP won most of the seats for Rakhine state and had the third-highest number of votes nationwide. It seeks a federal system in Myanmar, with more power for its states.

Rakhine drew the eyes of the world in 2017 when over 730,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh during a military crackdown, a campaign that United Nations investigators said was carried out with "genocidal intent". The army said it was responding to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

The current conflict is being waged by the Arakan Army, which is fighting for greater autonomy for the western region. Its recruits are largely Buddhists, who make up most of the population of Rakhine as well as Myanmar.

Opposition parties have urged Myanmar's government to postpone the election because of surging coronavirus infections and a rising death toll, but Ms Suu Kyi has said the ballot must go ahead.

The move could have a "huge impact on the political dynamics of Rakhine," warned Mr Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, executive director of People's Alliance for Credible Elections, a monitoring organisation.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2020, with the headline 'Over half of polling stations in Rakhine shut due to instability'. Print Edition | Subscribe