Myanmar Elections Will Be Neither Free Nor Fair in Rakhine

By Kyra Jasper
With four days until Myanmar’s general elections, many international observers and opposition parties doubt that the polls will be conducted freely and fairly. These concerns echo those raised during the previous elections in 2015 regarding violence in border states and structural inequities that have only intensified. The United States and much of the international community deemed the 2015 elections successful because of the peaceful transfer of power from the military-backed government to civilian leadership for the first time in more than 50 years. Although observers voiced concerns regarding voter disenfranchisement, especially of Rohingya, the international community hoped that the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its Nobel laureate leader Aung San Suu Kyi would help resolve ethnic tensions and consolidate democracy. Unfortunately, over the past five years, systemic violence against the Rohingya only worsened, border states remain wracked by violence, and Myanmar did not move closer to international democratic standards.

In 2012, the United States began gradually easing sanctions imposed on Myanmar two decades before. In light of the 2015 election, President Barack Obama lifted more sanctions after calling Myanmar a “good news story” because of the successful transition of power from the military to the NLD, which he called a sign of “Burma’s substantial advances to promote democracy...and greater enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

But even as sanctions were being lifted, the Myanmar government was conducting a campaign of persecution against the Rohingya. In 2014, the government precluded them from self-identifying as Rohingya in the nation’s first census in decades. Nine months before the 2015 elections, President Thein Sein revoked 750,000 temporary identification documents (“white cards”) held mainly by Rohingya, even disenfranchising individuals who had been allowed to vote in 2010 and 2012 elections. The Carter Center noted that district-level sub-commissions disqualified a combined 22 candidates from predominantly-Rohingya parties in the run-up to the elections. Nearly all Muslim candidates in Rakhine State were barred from participating, even those from non-Rohingya ethnic groups.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, disenfranchisement of Rohingya has escalated. Agence France-Presse reported in late September that almost all of the 600,000 Rohingya remaining in Myanmar will be barred from participating in the elections. The Myanmar government frequently invokes the 1982 Citizenship Law to block some minorities, especially the Rohingya, from participating in the political process. At least half of the dozen or so Rohingya candidates who applied to run in the upcoming elections have been rejected because officials claimed they could not prove their parents’ citizenship at the time of their birth.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated concerns about election fairness. Weeks after the first cases of local transmission were detected in Rakhine state, the Union Election Commission (UEC) issued restrictions on campaigning on September 8. These restrictions prevent political parties from campaigning in areas with stay-at-home orders, including in Rakhine. Digital campaigning is not viable as the government has shut down the internet in several townships in Rakhine and Chin states for over a year. On October 16, the UEC excluded 56 townships from holding elections at all. Most are in Rakhine, Kachin, Mon, Shan, and Karen states, which the government insists are “unable to conduct free and fair elections.” This means nearly 1.5 million of Myanmar’s 38 million eligible voters will not be able to cast a ballot, including more than 1.2 million of Rakhine state’s 1.6 million eligible voters.

As a result, most eligible voters in Rakhine state—both Buddhist and Muslim—will not be able to participate in the upcoming elections at all. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were already disenfranchised ahead of the 2015 elections. And most of those who managed to hang on to their citizenship have were disenfranchised by the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing from late 2016. About 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since while more than 130,000 remain internally displaced.

Prospects for peaceful relations between the Rohingya and the Myanmar government after the elections are bleak. The military is responsible for the campaign to drive the Rohingya out, but Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have no political incentive to intervene. A UN fact finding mission to Myanmar in September 2019 recommended sanctions against senior military officials and companies with ties to the army, but very few countries have done so. The United States has imposed some targeted sanctions against Myanmar military officers, though it also continues to fete the civilian government. On October 28, a U.S. government delegation met with Aung San Suu Kyi and several other senior ministers to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to invest in Myanmar’s economic development and democratization. Since 2017, the United States has invested nearly $330 million in six enterprises in Myanmar. This move comes on the heels of a senior U.S. diplomat urging Aung San Suu Kyi to “secure the voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya and other refugees and internally displaced persons” after a “transparent and inclusive election.” But the elections this month are poised to be even less transparent and inclusive election than those in 2015 – and that should give the United States pause.

Kyra Jasper is a research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.