With Myanmar’s general elections merely weeks away, and with COVID-19 and armed conflict casting a huge shadow over any outcomes of the vote, the situation for ethnic nationalities remains precarious, and it is clear that no matter the result of the election, their struggle for equality and self-determination continues, with both old and new challenges lying ahead.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) has stated that in large parts of Rakhine State the election will not go ahead due to security concerns, meaning that around two thirds of Rakhine State’s population will not be able to vote. Seven townships in Shan State and certain wards and village tracts in Kachin, Mon and Karen States are also subject to similar restrictions. The transparency of the UEC is in question as even the local UEC in Shan State told the media that the announcement of this cancellation was done without their prior knowledge. In response, a joint statement from ethnic Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Mon and Chin political parties raised concerns around “the transparency, impartiality and integrity” of the UEC.
While the situation of armed conflict is certainly serious in Rakhine State and other ethnic states in Myanmar, what the UEC does not mention is that it is the military offensives and militarization of the Myanmar military that creates this insecurity cited. Furthermore, inconsistencies are obvious. For example, in Paletwa Township, Chin State, in which the National League for Democracy is expected to win, voting will still go ahead despite the fact it is massively impacted by the armed conflict whereas the nearby townships in Rakhine State in which the election has been cancelled, were strongholds of the Arakan National Party at the last election. Similarly in Shan State, in Mong Kung which is regarded as a safe seat for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, there will be no voting.
That many people living in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States are not able to vote is added to by the blatant disenfranchisement of the Rohingya, who, despite being able to vote in 2010, have been barred from voting in 2015 and this upcoming election. While most of the Rohingya have been forced to flee to Bangladesh, escaping genocidal violence committed by the Myanmar military, those who remain are not permitted to vote, while candidates who state Rohingya as their ethnic origin have been struck off candidate lists. The disenfranchisement of Rohingya candidates is a problem confounded by the EU-funded mVoter 2020 app, which lists Rohingya candidates’ ethnicity as ‘Bengali’ thus contributing to a xenophobic and exclusionary discourses that is used by nefarious actors in Myanmar to justify the genocidal violence against the Rohingya, further entrenching institutionalized racial discrimination.
However, it is not just areas most affected by current armed conflict that are impacted. As a report by the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) demonstrates, ethnic people in southern Myanmar face various struggles in exercising their right to vote, as they did in the previous two elections in 2010 and 2015. This includes a lack of information, not being registered to vote, and poor access to polling stations. HURFOM’s report found that people with disabilities, those living in areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), and internally displaced persons (IDPs) faced the biggest barriers to be able to vote. Again, this points to the shortfalls of this election and reflects the inequality in Myanmar. It is ethnic people, in areas far from the central power bases of central Myanmar, some of whom are living in EAO-controlled areas, that are excluded from this election.
While the Karen National Union, historically one of Myanmar’s strongest EAOs, urged Karen people to vote for ethnic Karen political parties, the aims and struggles of EAOs and ethnic communities remain far from being addressed. As they struggle for representation, participation in the country’s governance, and for a substantive say in the future of their own communities and Myanmar as a whole, they continue to be marginalized at the hands of the military and the NLD government’s centralised and chauvinistic Bamar-centric policies and practices. And of course, many ethnic communities face the ongoing violence and human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military and the legacy of many decades of armed conflict. This is the context to which is added the difficulties in participating in the general elections and it is thus clear that ethnic people’s struggle is far from over, as articulated by various civil society actors in a discussion on the situation in Rakhine State, titled ‘Arakan in the Darkness’.
Thus, it is no surprise that ongoing civil war plays a larger role for people’s security, livelihood and basic human rights than any previous election. Despite this, the election will take place next month, on 8 November, and the people of Myanmar, whether ethnic minority or Bamar, have for decades struggled for the right to vote for the political party of their choice. However, the exclusion of the displaced, the unheard and the forgotten ethnic and religious minorities, the very people who are most marginalized and disenfranchised, will elide the possibility of this 2020 elections from free, fair or credible. Clearly, the longer the military retains disproportionate, centralized power, as enshrined in the military-drafted 2008 Constitution, this ethnic inequality and disenfranchisement will continue and their aspired federal democracy will be a far fetched dream. Elections are important, yet are just one part of a democracy, and a political restructuring of the governance structures that places the military under civilian control and devolves power in a federal system of governance must be the aspiration that needs to be realized. Otherwise, ethnic minority nationalities who make up at least 40% of Myanmar’s population will continue to suffer from civil war, disenfranchisement and entrenched discrimination and inequality, and thus peace for all peoples of Myanmar will remain impossible.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Burma Campaign UK
By Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting
By Free Expression Myanmar
By Justice For Myanmar
By Justice For Myanmar
By Karen National Union
By Rohingya Youth for Legal Action, Rohingya Youth Association, Rohingya Peace Innovation Unity, Bangladesh Rohingya Student Union and Arakan Society for Peace and Human Rights
By The Carter Center
By The Carter Center
By United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United States, United Kingdom and European Union
By Amnesty International
By Free Expression Myanmar and Freedom House
By Generation Wave
By Generation Wave
By Loka Ahlinn
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”