Members of the Bangladeshi Rakhine Community in Dhaka stage a protest rally demanding a stop to the genocide in Arakan – Rakhine State – by the Myanmar Army on October 11, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mamunur Rashid/NurPhoto

Political extremism in Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine State stepped up a notch in recent days with the abduction of three candidates for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) by the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army (AA), ahead of nationwide polls on November 8.

The three candidates, U Min Aung, a state-level member of parliament, Nyi Nyi May Myint, a national level lower house MP, and Chit Chit Chaw, a national upper house MP, were all re-contesting the lower Rakhine State electorate of Taungup Township, and were campaigning in a village on October 14 when they were abducted by armed men and taken by boat to nearby Ramree Island.

Speculation at first centered on a shadowy local group called the National Security Organization (NSO), which had issued anti-government statements this year and threatened NLD members. But on Monday, the insurgent Arakan Army claimed responsibility for the abductions.

In a lengthy justification statement issued through its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), the AA claimed, “for the interest of people of Arakan and Arakanese revolution … (AA) has unavoidably taken the three crooked NLD members … They have been summoned and brought to testify, and will be detained and investigated as required by circumstances till a certain time.”

As far as ‘proof of life’ photos for abductees goes, the image released by the AA with the statement is disturbing. It shows the three party candidates standing behind a display of an NLD flag, election hats, mobile phones, party pamphlets, currency and other assorted elections paraphernalia, akin to the display of captured weaponry and equipment the AA frequently posts on its multiple social media platforms after clashes with the security forces.

The Arakan Army has been employing abduction as a tactic of war with increased brazenness in the last two years. The group has abducted a number of civilians they claim were working as undercover informants for the military, including employees of engineering firms and civilians traveling on rivers the AA claims to be the rightful regulators of traffic on.

Ethnic Chin people hold placards during a protest for an end to conflict in Chin state and Rakhin State in Yangon on July 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

In November 2019, the group detained a number of Indian construction workers overseeing the Kaladan River project, one of whom, 60-year old Vinoo Gopal, died of a heart condition in captivity. 

In the same incident, the AA abducted U Hawi Tin, an ethnic Chin NLD member of the upper house, and detained him for three months before his release in January.

In late December, a branch member of the NLD in Buthidaung Township was captured and subsequently died in AA custody, apparently as a result of Tatmadaw artillery fire.

The insurgents further claim they have dozens of security force personnel in their custody, some of whom have been cooperating with the group after surrendering, and others who are legitimate prisoners of war captured during hostilities. A number have died in botched rescue attempts. 

The abductions came only two days before the Myanmar Union Electoral Commission (UEC) announced the list of cancellations for the November 8 polls ostensibly for security related concerns: nine full townships in Rakhine, Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Kyauktaw, Ponnagyun, Mrauk U,  Minbya, Myebon and Pauktaw, and partial cancellations of four other townships, affecting 152 urban wards and rural village tracts.

In effect, this deprives more than one million mostly ethnic Rakhine of the right to vote. In political terms, it was a roundhouse kick to Rakhine aspirations for greater parliamentary representation. Not wholly unexpected, but still devastating. 

Suspiciously, voting was not canceled in Paletwa Township of Chin State, part of U Hawi Tin’s constituency, leading to widespread speculation the NLD wanted the seat open for contesting where it will likely retain seats, unlike many of the canceled Rakhine townships where the Arakan National Party (ANP) was likely to retain widespread support.

Rakhine ethnic people listen during an Arakan National Party campaign in this file photo from 2015. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

These cancellations, which also affect parts of Kachin and Shan States and isolated areas of Myanmar’s Southeast, come amidst several weeks of a Covid-19 surge and Myanmar has experienced more than 30,000 new cases and close to 1,000 deaths.

The majority of the cases affect the commercial capital Yangon, which is under stay-at-home orders until October 31. Rakhine State has so far only recorded 2,500 of these new cases and has, so far, seemed to contain the virus. 

Anger at the cancellations sparked a protest march in the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe on Monday, with demonstrators chanting “Myanmar army get out, get out!! Myanmar government get out, get out!!” before the leaders were arrested by police.

Animosity towards the NLD government is at fever pitch in Rakhine, after two years of a destructive armed conflict has displaced more than 220,000 ethnic Rakhine civilians, seen hundreds killed and wounded by indiscriminate Tatmadaw airpower and artillery, widespread human rights violations and the arrest of scores of perceived supporters of the AA under counter-terrorism charges.

The AA’s ominous conditions for the three candidates’ release illustrate their tactics of tit-for-tat captive exchanges and the commodification of captive opponents.

“We will release the three of them if the NLD government release politicians, students and innocent people without exception who have been arrested and detained unlawfully for demanding peace. As we have already released statements on POW’s exchange in the past, our POW swap policy remains intact,” AA said.

The AA’s resort to abducting MP’s and other officials lurch the insurgency further into a potential terrorist stance, especially after their formal designation under the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law in March this year.

Residents who fled from conflict between the Myanmar army and the Arakan Army at a temporary refugee camp at a monastery in Sittwe, Rakhine State, on June 29, 2020. Photo: AFP

As Asia Times reported on September 25, with the role of the AA in using Tatmadaw prisoners as taped ‘evidence’ to be passed onto international courts for past military atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims, such a tactic is prohibited under international humanitarian law.

In Myanmar, Section 365 of the Penal Code states that abduction “with intent to cause that person to be secretly and wrongfully confined” is punishable by seven years in prison.

These abductions signal two important shifts in Myanmar. The first is the ruthless disregard for the norms of insurgent behavior previously exhibited in the civil war: the AA has drastically rewritten the rule book whereby abductions of civilians and especially foreigners were largely aberrant, yet are now clearly part of an open season campaign against the state and its perceived agents. 

The second, and equally ominous shift, is a potential turn from rebel groups eschewing election-related violence, and instead targeting individuals and parties involved in electoral democracy.

Despite previous assurances by the AA leadership that they would not interfere with the 2020 elections, the recent abductions show a disregard for the separation of elections and war. So far there is no contagion effect in other parts of Myanmar. 

But these recent abductions are the most worrying degeneration in an election already marred by a pandemic, an interventionist government and an incompetent and politicized UEC, and a peace process that has failed to be inclusive to all armed groups, who instead resort to increasing violence.

David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on peace, conflict and human rights related issues in Myanmar