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Myanmar general election violence on the rise as November vote nears

Supporters of a political party during a clash in Sagaing's Kantbalu township. Photo supplied to The Irrawaddy.

This article by San Yamin Aung is from The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar, edited and republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

As Myanmar gears up for the general election on November 8, the campaign season has already turned deadly.

In the most recent deadly incident, a Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) mob attacked a 38-year-old man who tried to stop the beating of National League for Democracy (NLD) youth supporters during the clash between the two parties in Sagaing region’s Kanbalu township. The man, who was wearing an NLD t-shirt when he was attacked, received severe head injuries and died at the hospital on Saturday (October 24) morning, becoming the first fatality due to election violence this year.

The mob also damaged a house where NLD supporters attempted to hide out, as well as the motorcycles of NLD supporters, and the village’s COVID-19 checkpoint gate, according to regional government’s rule of law and justice body.

[The USDP is a military-backed party that ruled Myanmar after its transition to civilian rule in 2011. During the 2015 election, USDP was defeated by the opposition party NLD.]

“It is believed to be intentional violence,” U Than Htay, a member of the body, said. According to the body’s investigation, a USDP convoy with around 2,000 followers had been going back and forth in the village since early morning on Thursday. The confrontation happened about 3 p.m. and the attackers carried sticks and knives along with them, U Than Htay said.

Regarding the death of the NLD supporter in Sagaing region’s Kantbalu township, the USDP regional office said they weren’t aware of the incident. At a press conference on October 27, they expressed regret for the casualty during a rally of their party’s supporters. Five USDP supporters were arrested in connection with the killing and the destruction of property.

Party supporters are not members of the party and because there was no evidence of the involvement of the candidate or his or her representatives in the cases, punishment for election violence is falling under the Penal Code, with charges of committing obscene acts, causing hurt and vandalism facing the group’s leaders.

Escalating violence heading into the elections

Similar concerns were also expressed by a local administrator in Myaing township of Magwe region where a pro-USDP mob raided an NLD regional member’s house on the night of October 3.

The mob attacked NLD member U Myint Naing’s home after he argued with a villager reportedly over the playing of the party’s campaign song. U Myint Naing and his family fled the house as petrol bombs landed.

The villagers involved in the mob claimed U Myint Naing and two others beat a villager who had gone to the house and told the people there to stop playing the campaign song. They maintained that any rioting was in response to violence on the part of the NLD. But local administrator U Thant Zin Khaing told The Irrawaddy that he did not think that the attack was about the campaign song, saying the villager was carrying a knife and the attackers had come armed with petrol bombs.

Thirty-two people involved in the attack face charges of vandalism, trespassing, and destruction of public property.

Several other election-related incidents of intimidation and physical attacks were also reported in Yangon, Naypyitaw, Mandalay and Ayeyawaddy regions.

Among the recent cases: An unexploded grenade was found at a Naypyitaw election official’s home in late September; Petrol bombs were lobbed on a National League for Democracy (NLD) regional member’s house in early October in central Myanmar; The Arakan Army (AA) abducted three NLD candidates in Rakhine state’s Taungup township in late-October; Riots took place in several places during which backers of the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) violently injured supporters of the USDP’s main rival, the NLD. In addition, the homes and vehicles of NLD supporters were also damaged in those clashes.

Why is the election more violent this year?

Referring to USDP campaigners’ attacks in campaign rallies in several locations, U Than Htay of Sagaing region’s rule of law and justice body said that the USDP has become more hostile and violent in this year’s campaign period compared to 2015.

The 2015 general election was held under a USDP-led government. At that time, the ruling USDP party was confident of election success and believed it would win enough parliamentary seats to retain control of the government. Instead, it only managed to win a humiliating 10 percent of seats up for grabs in the election.

U Than Htay added:

Unlike with the previous election, this time they know they are likely to lose. Instead of accepting a loss peacefully and competing honestly, they think intimidation will work.

Daw Mya Nandar Thin of the election monitoring group New Myanmar Foundation said a different style of campaigning this year has also been a major factor in the amount of electoral violence:

Unlike with previous election, this year’s election is occurring under a different set of circumstances. Because candidates and parties’ campaigns are largely restricted under COVID-19 related guidelines, the campaign convoys and rounds of parties’ supporters replaced the candidates’ campaigns. But there was a lack of specific rules for the parties’ supporters regarding campaign gatherings and security support at events.

Daw Mya Nandar Thin said that while security measures are needed to prevent further electoral violence, the political parties themselves also need to order their supporters and members to avoid violence.

According to the New Myanmar Foundation, there were more than 40 incidents of electoral violence since mid-August. During the 2015 general election, there were a total of 28 reported instances of violence.

The NLD’s spokesperson, Dr. Myo Nyunt, said the party has asked party members and supporters to be tolerant and to avoid violence.

Dr. Myo Nyunt recalled the USDP and their allied pro-military parties met with military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing ahead of the election.

Even before the election campaign season began, there were calls for the military to intervene if the election is not free and fair. The public knows a violent organization when they see one and don’t view them favorably. I think the public will become more politically active in response to that electoral violence.

However, Daw Mya Nandar Thin sees things differently. She said that violent election-related incidents could heighten a sense of insecurity and fear on the part of voters. If the incidents occurred near voters’ residences, she said, it could affect voter turnout.

The election laws criminalize the use of violence, threats, undue influence to prevent a person from exercising the right to vote or run in an election. And also the Political Parties Registration Law bans campaign activity that could cause conflict between people of different religions or affect the integrity of groups or individuals. Any political party or candidate who found guilty of violating this ban will be disqualified.

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