Ethnic identity in Myanmar, arguably the country’s most politically significant marker, is highly stratified. Myanmar’s transition from a wholly closed society to a gradually open one has seen the fragile union of 135 (recognized) ethnic groups and the carving of a national identity that defines people in fixed, exclusionary terms. The process of democratic transition has been marred when especially the military-civilian nexus is thriving in forming the ‘hybrid regime’ relegating the socio-ethnic fetters in the corner of the stone age. Ironically, the so-called democratic vision, unleashing the nascent intention of suppressing minority groups, is being materialized on the ashes of the ethnic divisions and marginalization of social groups in the name of “burmanization”. Against this backdrop, the national poll of 2020 was held on November 8, 2020 which, to Tatmadaw and National League for Democracy (NLD), was aimed to the transition of democratic process, though it left about more than one million voters aside from voting rights. These developments further enraged ethnic tensions.
Background: Ethnic division in perspective
Myanmar, ethnically, is one of the most diverse countries in Asia with Burmans making 69%, Shan 8.5%, Kayin 6.2%, Kayah 0.4%, Rakhine 4.5%, Chinese 0.7%, Mon 2.41%, Indians 1.3% and other Tribes 6.99%. By religion Buddhists are in a majority with 89.4%, Christians 4.9%, Muslims 3.9%, Animists 1.2%, Hindus 0.5% and others 0.1%. About 40% of Myanmar’s population (around 60 million) is composed of ethnic minorities often referred to as ethnic nationalities. Ethnic groups are divided in terms of religion, language, strength, ideology and separated geographically in distant places.
This worked to the advantage of the Army which exploited the differences to the fullest extent. The Tatmadaw, dominantly the de facto power holder in Myanmar, stresses its clutches from administration political reigns. Besides, the dominant political parties namely NLD and USDP are capitalizing their political agenda using the complex nature of ethnic diversity. The long-held ethnic divisions along the religious, linguistic and ideological lines are making the social fabric very much shaky.
2020 election and ethnic tension
The 2020 general election was one of disappointment for ethnic nationality parties in Myanmar. Prior to the polls, expectations were high that they would win a larger number of seats than in previous elections. But, NLD secured a landslide victory at the expense of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Besides, in preparation for the polls, ethnic parties had hoped that a combination of measures would improve their performance. Strategies included party mergers, policy development and the selection of younger candidates. Through these methods, ethnic parties in Kayah and Mon States increased their representation, while support for nationality movements remained firm in Rakhine and Shan States. But ethnic-based parties generally failed to gather momentum in other parts of the country.
After the election, a critical momentum came in turn. The several incidents like vote cancellation and disenfranchisement raged the ethnic parties. If ethnic leaders decide that the government’s outreach is hollow, this will reinforce their sense that Myanmar is locked into a “winner-takes-all” system of elections and national politics from which minority voices are marginalized and ignored. It may have been a factor driving ethno-political divisions and multiple armed conflicts. Following the election, NLD and Tatmadaw leaders reached out to ethnic parties. Suggestions included new peace talks, a reduction in military activities and the appointment of more nationality representatives in the government. All these initiatives were welcomed. But ethnic leaders questioned why these steps had not been taken prior to the polls. Resentment has deepened during the past few years against perceived exclusion and marginalization. Despite repeated promises, neither the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement nor 21st Century Panglong Conference has made effective progress.
Moreover, there are accusation of government of not providing level playing election field for ethnic parties. Ethnic opposition leaders provided a diversity of reasons for their failures to make progress. Troops deployments by the Myanmar armed forces apparently were directed (Tatmadaw) to support the USDP; and continued conflict and an increase in election cancellations for “security reasons”, according to ethnic parties. Negative campaigning by the NLD and USDP was also blamed, especially claims that a vote for ethnic parties was “wasted”. Cancellation of vote in some states was the source of tension. There were 54 constituencies where no voting took place in the November elections: 7 in the Upper House, 15 in the Lower House, 20 in the Rakhine State Parliament and 12 in the Shan State Parliament. These were mostly dominated by ethnic majority parties.
It is estimated that around 1.5 million voters were disenfranchised by these cancellations, all in areas where nationality parties were expected to perform well in the polls. It has a profound effect on post-election ethnic tension, when the ethnic parties are accusing the Union Election Commission for deliberate cancellation aiming at dissuading the ethnic parties from election row in the name of security reasons. Furthermore, the scale of cancellations came as a surprise to ethnic groups and many election watchers, as still there is Nationwide Ceasefire Agreements (NCA) between the government and ethnic armed organizations since 2012 in the cancellation areas.
Apart from that, the dissatisfaction caused by the cancelation of voting in largely ethnic minority areas threatens to fuel further conflict. The United League of Arakan/Arakan Army (ULA/AA), an ethnic Rakhine armed group fighting for greater autonomy, has showed dissatisfaction in Rakhine state and in southern Chin state. Even, there are instances of post-election violence in Shan state where the ethnic tension is prevalent across decades. A newly elected MP, named Htike Zaw, for Myanmar’s ruling party has been shot dead by an unidentified gunman in northern Shan state. The result in Htike Zaw’s constituency, a seat previously held by an ethnic Shan party but won by the NLD in November, is among those being disputed. It indicates the eruption of ethno-based tension centering the November 2020 election.
Not only that, but the ethnic minority parties, and the communities that support NLD, are likely to feel further sidelined by electoral politics after the election, when specially minority groups are disappointed in Suu Kyi for treating them as adversaries rather than allies and failing to consult them on decisions that affect their lives. These developments have obvious consequences which may turn into violent tensions between and among intra and inter-ethnic lines. Even, as some ethnic minorities who supported NLD in 2015 election have been marginalized in 2020 election. These groups may turn against NLD that must have impacts on social and political fabrics to some extent.
Cancellation of voting: Formalization of ethno-social relegation?
The decision of cancellation of voting in some townships in Rakhine and other states raged the ethnic minority groups. It was calculative to halt the Arakan National Party’s (ANP) possibility to win majority in Rakhine, according to ANP. It came as little surprise, then, when the Union Election Commission announced on 16 October that voting would be cancelled in much of central and northern Rakhine on security grounds. The extent of cancellations was unexpected, however: close to three quarters of the state’s eligible voters were disenfranchised.
Apart from this, there is another concern of further armed conflict between majority versus minority race. A particular source of concern is Rakhine State, which is in the grip of the most destabilizing conflict. The ethno-nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) has managed to win the largest bloc of seats in the regional parliament, by flipping a number of seats in the south previously held by the NLD. In reality, it means the ANP has a majority in the local parliament, but the next NLD government in Naypyitaw is likely to appoint an NLD-led government in the state, as it did in 2015. That will enrage many Rakhine people, a recipe for further armed conflict and political violence.
Furthermore, all of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations were watching electoral outcomes closely. To the extent the results leave ethnic parties out of the process, given the cancellation of voting, partisan behavior of UEC and negligence of NLD to ethnic minority groups, frustration will boost support for armed struggles over autonomy. That’s already happening in Rakhine and southern Chin States, driving Arakan Army recruitment even from other ethnic nationality groups. If those groups don’t see progress through formal political channels, armed elements across the country will likely respond—especially the AA’s close connection with other ethnic groups may trigger violence.
The post-election growing political frustration of the country’s non-Burma ethnic nationalities is fueling insurgencies. Even, the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party—and its armed forces patrons—are criticizing the government and attacking the country’s feeble electoral institutions alleging “deficiencies never seen in previous elections”. Moreover, international organizations have noted that the UEC is partisan and cited its shortcomings. It also creates a dangerous opening for political parties to question electoral outcomes and points to the risk of electoral violence. Over the past two weeks, multiple violent incidents around campaigns have resulted in two death. The way Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities experience the process will have major implications for peacemaking efforts moving forward.
After the national poll on November 2020, there are growing rise of resource-driven tension which also have ethnic flavor. For instance, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), and its political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU) blame a gradual buildup of Tatmadaw units in Hpapun Township, where a controversial road-building project has fueled instability and numerous armed incidents, and the displacement of civilians and a number of killings in recent times. It became violent when December 1 the KNLA demanded the withdrawal of all Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, bases from its territory. The Tatmadaw claims that there is competition over gold mining and other extractive projects in the area.
Disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and the last nail in the coffin
The Rohingya Muslim minority, one of the most persecuted people in the world, was again disenfranchised during Myanmar’s election. Many ethnic Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, and Karen were also not able to vote. Even though the election laws had not changed, they were applied in such a way as to keep most Rohingya leaders from running in 2020. Moreover, the NLD also canceled elections in over 50 townships, suppressing the votes across other ethnic constituencies including Karen, Shan, and Rakhine States. The UK based Rohingya right’s group BROUK says disenfranchisement of Rohingya is another step to genocide. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s recent report suggests that disenfranchisement of Rohingya based on their identity only solidifies divisions and deepens marginalization of the Rohingya, keeping them at risk of mass atrocities, including genocide.
Post-election Myanmar will continue to witness growing rise of right-wing extremist groups under the shadow of state sponsorship and growing marginalization of ethnic groups. After the election the ethno-social clashes may flourish the bunch of ethnic tensions when the state machinery is patronizing the right-wing groups. The results of elections have not shown any positive developments for the major ethnic groups in Myanmar. The unrecognized ethnic group, the Rohingyas, has been further marginalized and obscured from the state of Myanmar in the post-election phase. However, the presence of the so-called nationally recognized 135 ethnic groups and the Rohingya community will continue to remain a major domestic challenge for the NLD and the military and right-wing forces driven by ultra-nationalism and radical Buddhism. The failure of the Myanmar regime in accommodating aspirations of the ethnic communities will haunt the state in its exclusionary and undemocratic path to national development.