Ethnic political parties have come together in the run-up to Myanmar’s national election in an attempt to gain more of a voice in the governing of the country after a sense they were let down by the unfulfilled promises of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party during the previous 2015 election.
Hyperbole has made way for harsh reality for the ethnic parties as they get out to campaign amidst restrictions imposed to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NLD clarion call from leader Aung San Suu Kyi back in 2015 was one of peace, yet little real progress has been made through her much-heralded 21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference dialogues while she has been in office.
This time round, nobody is expecting the ethnic vote to dramatically alter the outcome of the November 8 election, viewed as a two-horse race between the ruling NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
But there is hope in certain ethnic quarters that ethnic candidates could help as “kingmakers” and that ethnic groups will have more of a say in the running of their communities and avoid what they view as unnecessary conflicts, ranging from deadly firefights to angry disagreements over federal government overreach in the naming of bridges or erection of statues in the name of General Aung San.
No strength in numbers
Myanmar is at yet another crossroads under a leadership that has proved lacklustre, one that has overseen shocking conflict in Rakhine State and a continuation of clashes elsewhere with the problem of internally displaced people still an issue.
Under circumstances in which the federal government has failed to live up to its earlier promises, ethnic groups want more of a say in the running of the country.
Yet part of the challenge can be seen in the plethora of ethnic voices. Out of the 94 political parties participating nationwide in this election, 55 are ethnic parties.
It is important to note that only a few ethnic parties will likely be elected to play a direct role in parliament and the running of the country, as seen in the 2015 election in which 40 ethnic parties did not win a single seat, according to a report by the Transnational Institute.
Viewing strength in mergers, five ethnic parties have come together to try to win sizeable votes in seven ethnic states. The said five are Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD), Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP), Karen National Democratic Party (KNDP), Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP), Mon Unity Party (MUP).
The CNLD is a merger of the Chin Progressive Party, Chin National Democratic Party, and Chin League for Democracy. Political analysts have described the CNLD is the primary ethnic rival of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) in Chin State.
The KSPP is a merger of Kachin Democratic Party, Kachin State Democracy Party, Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State.
The KNDP is a fusion of Karen Democratic Party, Karen State Democracy and Development Party, and the Karen United Democratic Party.
The KySDP is a merger of All Nationalities Democracy Party, Kayah Unity Democracy Party. It has reached a “no compete” agreement with the Kayan National Party.
The MUP is a merger of All Mon Regions Democracy Party and Mon National Party.
Dissatisfaction of the ethnic nationalities
This push by ethnic parties to merge reflects the dissatisfaction with what they view as the NLD’s unfriendly and inappropriate treatment of them during its five year tenure after it won a landslide victory in the 2015 general elections.
Prior to this, the population in ethnic states, like the rest in Bamar-dominated regions, pinned their hope on the NLD to establish a pure civilian government without the military meddling in politics.
But from the point of ethnic parties and the majority of the ethnic states’ population the NLD was unable to deliver its “time to change” election manifesto, which was “to achieve peace, amend the constitution and establish a fair and just government.”
In concrete terms, they accused the NLD of only pursuing reconciliation with the military or Tatmadaw and completely abandoning the ethnic parties, besides siding openly with the military in ethnic armed conflict in Rakhine State and the rest of ethnic states. In addition, the naming of the Mon State Chaungzon or Bilu Kyun Bridge the Bogyoke Aung San Bridge and the erection of a Bogyoke Aung San horse-riding statue in Loikaw against the will of the Karenni people added to the dissatisfaction harboured by the ethnic nationalities.
EAOs implications in the election
According to Center for Diversity and National Harmony (CDNH), Early Warning, Early Response report “Ahead of the 2020 General Election: Campaigns, Hate Speech, and Violence” for July to September 2020, it writes: “Although most EAOs (Ethnic Armed Organizations) have indicated that they will not interfere in the elections, but in practice their behaviour has been varied.”
The report pointed out that unlike the 2015 general elections, when most EAOs were more or less backing the NLD, many are now having preferences for the ethnic parties.
“For example, the Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) have both called for unity among the ethnic minority parties representing their ethnic groups. There are reports that some KNPP members in remote areas have been asking locals to vote for Kayah parties. The New Mon
State Party has reportedly restricted campaigning in its areas of control to Mon ethnic minority parties, but is not otherwise interfering.”
“The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) announced that it would not allow any party to campaign in its areas, but non-Kachin parties allege that this rule has been waived for Kachin ethnic minority parties. This does not seem to reflect official KIO policy, but is instead due to the decisions and sympathies of locals,” according to the report.
In Shan State, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) told political parties to inform them before campaigning in its areas. The Ta’ang (Palaung) National Party’s (TNP) activities in Mongkaing Township was said to be opposed by the RCSS.
“These factors explain why survey respondents in September identified the RCSS as one of the actors who might disrupt the election by preventing campaigning. In Shan State, respondents also mentioned the risk of obstruction by the local people’s militia forces.”
“(H)owever, in September a majority of respondents from across the country and in all States and Regions indicated that they did not anticipate violence from armed actors connected with the election,” according to the report.
As for Rakhine or Arakan State, while the Arakan Army (AA) said that the authorities should negotiate with it if they wish to hold elections in the AA’s areas of operation, the government is unlikely to respond given that the AA has been designated a terrorist group since March 2020.
“As of August 27, all 17 townships have been placed under lockdown due to the number of COVID-19 cases, leading to a ban on in-person campaigning. Moreover, internet access in central and northern Rakhine State was entirely cut off until August and since its restoration has been limited to 2G. As candidates from Rakhine State have stressed, this severely limits the possibilities of online campaigning as users are unable to access most websites or view images and videos,” the CDNH, Early Warning, Early Response report says.
Wars in northern Shan and Rakhine states
There are serious worries that a large part of northern and central Rakhine State and northern Shan State might also be left out from the voting procedure as armed conflicts are ongoing in both areas as of this writing.
Occasional armed conflicts between the RCSS and Tatmadaw that have been going on and off since the RCSS signing of nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015, flared up again starting October 2 for about a week and at this writing the tension remains high, although clashes were said to have quietened down.
On October 9, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) four MPs representing its party in Amyotha and Pyithu Hluttaws wrote to the Shan State chief minister, with copies to the president and state councillor to intervene for the safety of the civilians in Kyaukme Township, where the Tatmadaw is conducting offensives against the RCSS. The local people were worried that the elections could be cancelled due to the conflict in their area.
United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), supported by 134 Civil Society Organizations on October 10 issued a statement calling for an end to the war, dialogue, help for the internally displaced, lifting of the internet shutdown in Chin and Rakhine, help with unemployment due to COVID-19, and compliance with election rules.
Election campaigns and glitches
Generally speaking all five merger ethnic parties, including the SNLD and Arakan political parties largely adhere to the regulations set up by the Union Election Commission (UEC) on how to behave regarding the COVID-19 prevention procedures. All parties make use of online facilities to promote their political stance and communicate with their electoral bases.
Many complained that door-to-door campaign of not more 15 person restriction, and 50 person gathering for political campaign are hardly effective. Consequently, the ethnic parties overstep the regulations which exceeded the numbers suggested by the UEC like all the other mainstream parties like the NLD and USDP. But the caravan-like rallying using cars and motorcycles were frequently used, which is said to be more effective than the other methods. The 20,000 or so mass gathering using this caravan-like rallying in Kayah State by KySDP is a case in point.
Supporters of the KySDP and their ally the Kayah National Party (KNP) rallied in the state capital of Loikaw on October 5 despite the national surge in COV ID-19 cases. The rally appeared to defy guidelines against mass gatherings, according to a report by Myanmar Now.
In short, the ethnic parties are on the election trail to gather more votes for their own local parties which contradicts their stance in the 2015 elections, when the ethnic people were eager to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, so that the military could be pushed back from meddling in politics.
Looking at recent developments, the ethnic parties’ prospect of winning a better percentage this time around is quite favourable if compared to the situation of the 2015 general elections.
While there are worries that a free and fair election may be compromised through the meddling of EAOs, Tatmadaw and political parties, the election landscape as a whole won’t be affected, according to the experts’ prognosis.
Thus, the five merger parties in Chin, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, and Mon states should do well as the campaign to vote for local parties seems to be gaining traction.
In Shan and Rakhine states, the SNLD, together with the ANP, ALD and Arakan Front Party (AFP) should do well again as in the 2015 general elections. Then the SNLD came out second after the USDP in Shan State, where the NLD was third; and the ANP came out first but wasn’t allowed to form a government or occupy chief minister post. Although the ALD and AFP, formerly the part of ANP will enter the fray separately, they all are likely to form a coalition, in case the votes are split evenly among them. But the bottom line is that the Arakan parties will likely win again as a whole in Rakhine State.
Although the five merger ethnic parties formed an alliance to bargain with the Bamar mainstream parties, which are the NLD and USDP, the Shan and Arakan parties are not part of the agreement. But this does not mean that they won’t be able to form a broader coalition or alliance to bargain with the mainstream parties after the election.
Of course, time will tell us on how the scenario will play out.
Meanwhile, the KySDP and its supporters have hyped the role of being a Kingmaker further to be a coalition partner in the union national government if they could win 167 seats for Upper and Lower Houses from their contested seats of 207. If 333 representative seats is achieved in Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Union Parliament) which is the combination of Upper and Lower Houses with 664 representatives, that party can form the government, together with a mainstream party, which could either be the NLD or USDP, with the help of the Tatmadaw’s 166 appointed representatives.
Thus, whether the EPPs will become a Kingmaker, or even a bloc which will settle in as a minor to a major coalition partner of any mainstream party, or continue to struggle on as unimportant opposition parties within the parliamentary system, are open questions.
Meanwhile, on October 16, the UEC cancelled hundreds of townships from holding polling in the ethnic states of Kachin, Shan, Karen, Mon and Rakhine, citing security concerns. This may slim down the ethnic people’s party vote from becoming a formidable political bloc.
People from the ethnic states will have to wait until after November 8 for the answer.
Courtesy – Mizzima