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Myanmar election

Japan urges Suu Kyi to hold by-elections in Myanmar ethnic state

Armed group and military agree to cease-fire for possible vote in Rakhine

Yohei Sasakawa, Japan's special envoy to Myanmar,  told Nikkei Asia in an interview on Thursday that he urged Aung San Suu Kyi to hold early by-elections in Rakhine State. (Photo by Yuichi Nitta)

YANGON -- Japan's special envoy for Myanmar affairs Yohei Sasakawa is calling on State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi's government to hold early by-elections in an ethnic minority area that did not participate in the country's national vote last month, telling Nikkei Asia that it could help calm the violence-plagued region.

"Holding elections in Rakhine State is a serious step toward a [permanent] cease-fire or peace [with the armed forces]," Sasakawa, whose official title is Special Envoy of the Government of Japan for National Reconciliation in Myanmar, said in an interview on Thursday.

Myanmar held a general election on Nov. 8, but voting did not take place in constituencies in the northern part of Rakhine due to conflict between the army and ethnic armed forces there. A temporary cease-fire pushed by Japan is currently in place.

On Thursday, Sasakawa, who is also chairman of the nonprofit organization Nippon Foundation, met with Suu Kyi, the de facto head of government, in the capital Naypyitaw, and told her that failure to hold early by-elections would "plunge Rakhine State into chaos and make peace impossible." According to Sasakawa, Suu Kyi did not make any specific comments in response.

Sasakawa also met with Union Election Commission Chairman Hla Thein on Wednesday and called for early voting in northern Rakhine, but he said the official showed no clear stance on the issue during the meeting.

In Rakhine State, the Arakan Army, an armed group of ethnic Rakhines -- also known as Arakanese -- expanded its sphere of influence there and has engaged in fierce fighting with the national army. It has a history of being established in areas close to the Chinese border and is been considered to have close ties with China.

Rakhine State also came to international attention in 2017 when hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim ethnic Rohingya in the state fled military violence to neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohingya are not part of the Arakan Army.

Out of the 664 seats in the upper house and lower houses of parliament, the election commission has canceled elections in a total of 16 electoral districts in the northern part of the state. An estimated 1.2 million people, or 70% of voters there, were unable to vote.

Sasakawa visited Myanmar on Nov. 8 for the general election as head of the Japanese government's election monitoring mission. After the voting, he used his connections in both the national army and the Arakan Army to mediate behind the scenes.

On Nov. 12, the Arakan Army announced a cease-fire and said it "sincerely desires that by-election[s] be held in those constituencies in order that the people do not lose their rights." The army also issued a statement on the same day that it "welcomes the statement of the Arakan Army and assures utmost coordinated efforts" to hold elections in northern Rakhine.

On Nov. 28, Sasakawa visited those areas of Rakhine State. He said that the local people were afraid that they were isolated and said they wanted elections to be held quickly.

Sasakawa speaks with a local woman during a visit to northern Rakhine on Nov. 28. (Photo courtesy of Nippon Foundation)

According to a statement released by the Arakan Army on Dec. 2, it began a dialogue with the military, including an online meeting in late November, and "no fighting has occurred for more than 20 days."

Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, told Nikkei in an email that Japan has played an "intermediary role" between the Myanmar government and armed ethnic groups. "Both sides appear to be comfortable working [together with the Japanese]," Min Zaw said. But he added: "The situation is still fragile on the ground."

Myanmar has about 20 armed ethnic groups that have been fighting the ethnic Burman majority-led state military for greater autonomy. Sasakawa stressed that while building confidence in peace takes time, "whether the elections take place [in Rakhine State] will be crucial."

As for Shan State, where elections were also canceled in some constituencies, Sasakawa said Japan plans to push for voting there as well., "We will talk to the armed forces and encourage them to hold elections," he said.

Sasakawa, however, cautioned against too aggressive a stance on the part of outsiders.

"If foreigners push their opinions too much, conflicts will become more complicated. Myanmar's problems should be solved by the people of Myanmar over time," he said.

He added: "Our role is to set up a place where the two sides can talk. As soon as there is a cease-fire, we will bring in humanitarian aid and provide food, build schools and clinics as fruits of peace. We want to establish a new way of conflict resolution."

The Nippon Foundation began its activities in Myanmar in the 1970s. Since 2012, after the country's transition to civilian rule, it has been supporting peacebuilding. Sasakawa was appointed to his post as special envoy in 2013.

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