The most critical player in Rakhine for the security situation and upcoming elections is the Arakan Army, not the local politicians.
At the two-year mark of the 1 February 2021 coup in Myanmar, the State Administration Council (SAC) regime extended its term for another six months and sought support for elections now planned for August 2023. The SAC’s moves to push ahead with what are likely to be sham elections have stacked the odds in favor of its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Amidst ongoing humanitarian concern for displaced populations in Rakhine State, its political parties have expressed willingness to join the SAC’s election process, although many Rakhine people remain sceptical. The major stakeholder in Rakhine politics – the Arakan Army (AA) – has been largely silent on the SAC’s election plans.
Analysts have warned that holding elections without the people’s consent “will be a sham, logistically difficult…and almost certainly provoke greater violence”. The Myanmar military and various armed groups resisting it have been engaged in escalated conflict since 2021. The military, however, seems to view or treat Rakhine State differently.
Formed in 2009 to assert its autonomy aspirations, the AA has been fighting the Myanmar military since 2012 and now claims to have 30,000 troops. Days before the November 2020 election, however, the military and the AA had agreed to a peace deal. After the 2021 coup, the AA did not break that truce and the SAC lifted the “terrorist” label from the AA.
Ceasefire notwithstanding, tensions then soared and fighting resumed between the junta forces and the AA in August 2022. From August to November 2022, at least 64 civilians were reportedly killed and at least 107 injured, in nearly 100 battles. Fighting paused again in late November 2022, ostensibly to address the deepening humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.
The SAC has tried to take advantage of the current truce to create as much space as possible for favourable votes in its upcoming polls. First, the SAC prioritised the finalisation of the Kaladan multi-modal transport project linking Myanmar and India. On 9 January 2023, New Delhi’s Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said the project was “ready to operate”. The AA seems to have been consulted: in August 2022, Khaing Thuka, the AA spokesperson, said in an online press conference that the group had had some negotiations with the government of India on the Kaladan project.
Second, the SAC is moving to close camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to show that conditions are stable in Rakhine State. On 5 January, Myanmar Now reported that the junta had initiated the closure of 25 displacement camps in Rakhine by demanding that camp inhabitants sign a pledge to leave the camps. It was also reported that the SAC-appointed Chief Minister for Rakhine had explained “peace had been achieved” in Rakhine. The IDPs have limited options: “move to a new place of their choice, live in a place assigned by the military council, or return home”. For most IDPs, returning home is not a truly viable option, given the ongoing violence.
The SAC has tried to take advantage of the current truce to create as much space as possible for favourable votes in its upcoming polls.
Third, the SAC has taken advantage of some Rakhine politicians’ opportunism and anti-NLD sentiment. After seizing power in February 2021, the military junta offered SAC positions to several Rakhine political parties. Aye Nu Sein, vice chair and spokesperson of the Arakan National Party (ANP), Rakhine’s largest political party, which won seats in the 2020 election (though fewer than in 2015), accepted the SAC’s offer. In 2023, the SAC moved her to the SAC Advisory Committee. Despite the call from 47 Rakhine civil society groups on 7 February 2021 urging the ANP to reverse its decision on accepting the SAC’s offer, another ANP leader, Zaw Aye Maung, accepted the post of deputy ethnic affairs minister.
On 12 February 2021, the SAC released Dr. Aye Maung, chair of the Arakan Front Party (AFP), as part of a general amnesty. Aye Maung expressed his gratitude to coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing for his release.
On January 12, 2023, Dr Aye Maung told local media that his party would join the SAC election process. Aye Maung has frequently expressed his view that SAC’s election would be the only way out of the current crisis. U Ba Shein, an ANP top leader, told local media on 19 January that the ANP will also participate in the SAC’s elections.
Meanwhile, the USDP has reportedly started its election campaign activities in Rakhine State since early December 2022. The real kingmaker in Rakhine State, the AA, has maintained silence on the SAC’s election plans. This may be a strategic silence, as the impact of the AA’s pronouncements will have significant repercussions for the SAC and in Rakhine State. Since the coup in February 2021, the AA has largely exercised governance across the Rakhine, especially in rural areas, and enjoyed popular support from the people of Rakhine. Even so, the AA’s main priority does not seem to be the elections. Rather, the dilemma confronting the AA leadership is a potential return to all-out war in Rakhine, with the attendant collateral damage to lives and livelihoods, not least those of the IDPs.
Kyaw Hsan Hlaing is the author of dozens of articles on human rights, political transitions, and issues related to the civil war and the 2021 military coup in Myanmar. His work has appeared in leading publications including TIME, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Nikkei Asian Review, and many others.