Last week, Myanmar’s military issued a statement again calling for supplementary elections to be held in areas of Rakhine State where recent national elections were canceled due to an ongoing conflict.
During the November 8 election, around 1.2 million voters in the war-torn region were unable to cast their ballots after the Union Election Commission (UEC) cancelled voting in many townships on security grounds. Voting was also cancelled in parts of Shan and Kachin states.
The Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, said in its statement that elections should be held before newly-elected lawmakers are sworn at the beginning of February.
The military’s call follows two months of encouraging progress in efforts to resolve the conflict between the military and the insurgent Arakan Army (AA), which has raged in Rakhine State since 2018, during which time hundreds have been killed and injured and some 226,000 people have been forced from their homes.
Shortly after the November 8 election, Japan helped broker an informal ceasefire that ended the fighting between the Tatmadaw and AA, which has enabled tens of thousands of displaced people to return home and brought the two sides back to the negotiating table, opening the way for the holding of make-up elections.
In early December, the military and AA leaders held face-to-face meetings for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. Things took a significant step forward on January 1, when the AA released three NLD candidates it had abducted in October, and returned three captured soldiers to the Tatmadaw.
Both the Tatmadaw and AA have expressed their support for supplementary elections, which could be important in consolidating a fragile peace in Rakhine. The biggest remaining obstacle is the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). Since scoring a lopsided victory at the November election, the NLD government, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, has been at loggerheads with the military, which has challenged the extent of the NLD’s election victory, claiming electoral mismanagement by the UEC, which is appointed by the government. (In truth, such claims is probably motivated by the puny electoral showing of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.)
The Rakhine State Election Subcommission has announced that it is ready to organize the polls, but the UEC has yet to announce whether voting will be held.
According to some reports, the NLD trusts neither the military nor the AA and is wary of handing either group what could be perceived as a political victory. This is especially true given the extent of its landslide victory in November.
To be sure, NLD officials have expressed in-principle support for supplementary elections. In his Independence Day message on January 4, President Win Myint urged “relevant organizations” and “individuals” to work together in order to hold the elections in Rakhine state, though he did not specify exactly what parties he was referring to.
NLD officials claim that the army and AA must reach a “solid” security guarantee before elections are held. At the same time, the party claims that any election would technically be a by-election, something that under Myanmar’s election law cannot be held in the first or last year of the government’s five-year term. “So it may be organized in 2022 only,” said NLD spokesperson Dr Myo Nyunt. “If we want to do it early, we have to convene the Hluttaw [parliament] to amend electoral laws.”
While there is no technical reason why elections should be held this month the settlement of the Rakhine conflict has wider ramifications, especially for the NLD government’s push to renew national peace negotiations aimed at ending Myanmar’s tangled skein of ethnic conflicts.
As the International Crisis Group noted in a recent briefing, because the Rakhine conflict has been the country’s most deadly, and because the group has alliances with armed groups that are not party to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed in 2015, a lot is riding on the outcome of the ceasefire. As ICG argued, “the trajectory of the entire peace process hinges largely on whether the military and the government can reach a bilateral ceasefire with this particular armed group.”
Good news is rare when it comes to Myanmar’s conflicts, and the Japan-brokered ceasefire has offered both sides an opportunity to advance a sustainable peace. Now they just need to take it.