After the election: Reflections from Ta’ang Women’s Organisation
By Bethia Burgess
In the days after Myanmar’s 2020 election, I spoke to ethnic women around Myanmar about their perspectives on the results and the issues that are important to them as a new government is formed. This is the third of a short series where I share their reflections.
In Northern Shan State, conflict and human rights violations continued through the NLD’s first term
Broken ceasefires and a lack of civilian oversight over the Tatmadaw have continued to cause instability in the region. Clashes between ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and the military have had multiplying effects on civilians, who have faced torture, killing, forced displacement, sexual violence, and detention, amongst other violations. Despite the ongoing work of Ta’ang Women’s Organisation (TWO) and other local civil society organisations (CSOs), their demands for justice have fallen on Naypyidaw’s deaf ears.
For Ta’ang and other ethnic communities, the 2020 general election was an opportunity to hold the government accountable for their poor performance in delivering peace, stability, and the rule of law. But as in many other ethnic-majority areas, variations in access to voter education and the pressing concerns for livelihoods created opposing sentiments that made it difficult to predict the results.
Ultimately, TWO members say they were pleased with the performance of the Ta’ang National Party (TNP), which claimed victory in three townships.
“It is a good result when we look at the whole election process,” say TWO staff. “Many political parties including [the National League for Democracy] NLD, [military-aligned] USDP and [Shan Nationalities League for Democracy] SNLD competed in the 2020 election in Shan State.
“Overall, twelve TNP candidates (of 36) were elected. We were expecting a weaker result than the 2015 election delivered, but TNP were able to retain the same number of seats.”
While nine women candidates were put forward by the TNP, only one was successful; Daw Ai Saw Sein (Namhkam).
“We don’t think the lower success rate for women candidates is necessarily because of gender prejudice,” say TWO staff. “Mostly, it depends on the constituency that they represent. In downtown areas, there are also many ethnic candidates participating for the NLD or USDP, so people vote for them [over the ethnic parties].”
Old challenges were made more complex by COVID-19 restrictions
As TWO staff explain, it is conflict-related violence, not COVID-19, that remains the most significant threat to ethnic communities in Northern Shan State (NSS). However, travel bans and distancing measures only added to the complexities of preparing for and monitoring the election.
“[TWO] were very busy with voter education, election watch, and other activities,” say TWO staff.
“Many of our activities in communities have been affected by government restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In some areas, the village administrator or village head were afraid to accept the voter education training because they were concerned about these government restrictions. Because some Ta’ang people were not able to access up-to-date information about the parties or misunderstood the process, they were unable to cast an informed vote.”
The importance of exercising the right to vote is also far from a universal perception in the more remote villages.
According to TWO staff, “some people don’t understand the value of the ballot and therefore they did not vote on election day.”
As vote counting began, Ta’ang CSOs were also hampered in their election watch activities, as they were unable to register to gain access to official information.
“We did as much as we could, but there was difficulty in getting some information to monitor the results more closely,” they say.
Voter disenfranchisement a significant barrier to a free and fair election
US-based election monitor the Carter Center has generally congratulated Myanmar on delivering a relatively smooth election despite the additional challenges that arose with COVID-19. But they noted that this was tempered by the institutional barriers that continue to undermine Myanmar’s democracy, such as the military-guaranteed seats in parliament, discriminatory citizenship laws, and a broad lack of transparency and independence in electoral data and oversight.
But in conflict-affected areas, predominantly home to ethnic nationalities, voter disenfranchisement compounded these more general concerns. It is estimated that over 1.5 million people were prohibited from voting in the election due to voting cancellations announced several weeks before the elections. While most of those affected were in Rakhine State, approximately 70,000 voters are thought to have been affected by full or partial voting cancellations across 23 townships in Shan State.
In Rakhine State, the United League of Arakan (ULA) has called for by-elections to reinstate the democratic rights of roughly 1.2 million voters who were not allowed to participate in the general election earlier this month.
“Of course, in Shan State townships where people were unable to vote, we support the demand for a by-election too,” is the feedback from TWO staff. “The people in those areas have been denied the right to choose their representative and lost their right to a political voice.”
Even in areas like Lashio where voting went ahead, irregularities in the voting lists meant some eligible voters were unable to cast their vote on the day.
TWO women were among those prevented from voting by such errors. “When I went to vote on Sunday, my name was not on the list,” says a TWO Secretariat.
“I had been told by authorities to go to polling station [Lashio]-1, but even though I had supplied all my identity documents correctly, my name was missing from the list on the day. I don’t know why, but I was not able to vote.
“The same thing happened to another friend,” she adds, but says they have had no opportunity for recourse or explanation as to why they were denied their votes.
According to People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), roughly 30% of polling stations that were observed on election day had voter names missing from the electoral lists, though they were unable to provide an estimate of how many voters were affected across the country.
Political violence is only a small part of Northern Shan’s troubles
Concerns have been raised about the potential escalation of violence in NSS in the weeks following the general elections. On 16 November, gunmen shot at the house of Soe Tun, chair of the Kyaukme Township Electoral Commission, the same day that NLD candidate U Htike Zaw was declared for the Amothya Hluttaw/Upper House seat Kyaukme-1. Five days later, U Htike Zaw was fatally shot while working at his home shopfront. While the motives and perpetrators are currently unknown, potential sources of discontent have been raised in the media, including the partial cancellation of voting in Kyaukme, and the allegations of voting irregularities being claimed by the USDP.
Ethnic armed groups and political parties have issued statements condemning the attack, and the NLD is urging authorities to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Unfortunately, justice has been a rare occurrence in NSS, and these attacks are only part of a much larger pattern of conflict and violence that the NLD has failed to condemn when the victims have been ethnic civilians. While it is important to demand justice for U Htike Zaw, the NLD must overturn their policy of silence regarding the large-scale human rights violations that have occurred under their watch, both in NSS and elsewhere.
Since the election, clashes between the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] and the Tatmadaw have forced villages in Mogok Township, NSS, to flee their homes for nearby monasteries and shelters. Reports have also emerged of fighting in Muse between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army. Yet the NLD has failed to condemn these campaigns of fear and violence that continue to be waged against ethnic civilians.
“We want our area safe and peaceful,” say TWO’s Secretariat, expressing their distress at the reports of violence in recent days. Busy with their annual activities for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, the impacts of conflict on Ta’ang women are front of mind.
While there remain questions over the security situation in the wake of the election, the NLD has pressed forward with their agenda for peace, even going so far as to request the cooperation of all 48 political parties in an official statement contemplating a “unity government”.
In response to the NLD’s request to work together toward a democratic federal union, TWO say that this will first require some relationship-mending with ethnic political parties.
“If the NLD really wants to work with ethnic parties towards peace, they first need to listen to the ethnic leaders and start negotiating how to redraft the Constitution, where some provisions are not working well for democracy or ethnic rights.
“At the same time, they need to negotiate the best way to end the conflict and move forward to real peace.”