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War, not politics: Troubled election deepens tension in Myanmar's Rakhine

YANGON (Reuters) - Yarzar Tun’s whole family backed Myanmar’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in the landslide 2015 election that swept her to power. As fighting this year in western Rakhine state crept closer to his home, he decided he would not vote for her again.

People wearing protective gear line up to vote at a polling station during the general election in Taungup, Rakhine State, Myanmar, November 8, 2020. ÊREUTERS/Stringer

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has claimed another commanding win in a parliamentary election on Sunday, the second since the end of half a century of military rule. But in Rakhine the NLD was rejected by voters such as Yarzar Tun and his family, who backed an ethnic nationalist party instead.

“When the war got worse, the MPs we elected couldn’t speak out about our difficulties,” said the 38-year-old lawyer. “People worry every day. When will the bombs fall on them?”

While counting is still going on in many places, the NLD has won more than 80 percent of the seats so far announced, including in some ethnic minority areas.

In Rakhine, however, the party lost most of the seats it took in 2015, a result some analysts said highlighted the deepening sense of grievance many there harbour against a central government dominated by the ethnic Bamar majority that increases the risk of further conflict.

About two-thirds of the state’s population were unable to vote after the election commission shut some polling stations, citing fighting between government troops and the Arakan Army (AA) insurgent group, prompting complaints that voting was only being allowed to go ahead in areas where the NLD had more support.

The election commission has denied gerrymandering and said the poll station closures were necessary for security.

Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a humanitarian group that distributes aid to the tens of thousands displaced by the insurgency, said turnout was low, in contrast to the long lines that formed before dawn elsewhere in Myanmar.

In Rakhine, Zaw Zaw Tun said, “people have lost trust in parties and politics, and gained interest in armed revolution”.

NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin blamed the violence and what he described as an “intimidation campaign” against ruling party candidates for their losses in Rakhine, but promised to negotiate with the nationalist candidates that won.

‘SUPER-SIZED CONFLICT’

The ethnic Rakhine insurgency, believed to include thousands of rebels, poses a serious threat to Suu Kyi’s government in a region already destabilised by a military crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

More than 730,000 Rohingyas fled the army crackdown in 2017, a campaign that U.N investigators said was carried out with “genocidal intent”. Myanmar denies accusations of genocide during what it says was a legitimate counterinsurgency campaign.

The AA, who recruit from the mostly Buddhist majority, are fighting for greater autonomy for their impoverished state. The central government has long had a weak grip in Rakhine, which borders Bangladesh and is largely separated from the rest of Myanmar by a range of jungle-clad mountains.

In 2015 most of Rakhine’s seats were won by the nationalist Arakan National Party (ANP) - which strengthened its grip in Sunday’s vote - but its victory largely failed to translate into political power after Suu Kyi appointed an NLD minister to oversee the region.

Suu Kyi has vowed to “crush” the insurgency, while the government has cut off internet access to the state.

The United Nations has accused the military of further abuses in Rakhine that it says may amount to war crimes, including arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths in custody, and extrajudicial killings.

The army denies allegations of abuses or targeting civilians and has declared the AA a terrorist organisation.

The conflict appears to have cost the NLD its base in the mostly peaceful south of Rakhine, an area with strong cultural ties to the rest of the country.

“The fact that we won far and wide in southern Rakhine... is because the spirit of nationalism in people from those areas has become strengthened,” said Aye Nu Sein, spokeswoman for the ANP.

Khin Maung Yi, an NLD candidate in the state capital of Sittwe, told Reuters by phone he had only won 4.8 per cent of the vote. “The main thing is nationalism here,” he said.

Yarzar Tun, the lawyer, lives in the southern town of Taungup, which flipped to the ANP. He said though the area had been spared the worst of the fighting, he resented the NLD lawmakers elected last time for failing to speak out against abuses.

David Mathieson, a political analyst and former Human Rights Watch researcher in Myanmar, said perceived shortcomings of the polls risked fuelling the insurgency.

“That is the real fear of these elections,” he said. “That their conduct could super-size support for the AA and herald years of bitter armed conflict.”

Reporting by Shoon Naing; Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon and Poppy McPherson; Writing by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Alex Richardson

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