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Myanmar polls: NLD rides a ‘red wave’ but ethnic parties may dent support base

SAM SUNDAY FEATURE-ENG-07-11-2020-1
Aung San Suu Kyi 

Millions of Myanmar citizens headed for the polling booths on Sunday to elect the party that will govern the country for the next five years. According to most analysts and commentators, the result is a foregone conclusion. The ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had a landslide victory in 2015 led by its charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to be returned, though with a reduced majority. 

There are more than 90 parties contesting the election, nearly half of them representing ethnic minorities. But neither individually nor collectively, they are a match for the NLD. The NLD’s support base is spread across the country, but it is the strongest among the Bamar, who are Myanmar’s main ethnic group concentrated in central and northern Myanmar around the Irrawaddy delta, Mandalay, Pegu and Yangon. 

Fallen from grace internationally 

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has of course fallen from grace internationally, heavily criticised for the country’s persecution of its minority Muslim community, the Rohingya. She has allowed the military to run amok in the troubled western state of Rakhine forcing more than a million to flee to Bangladesh where they are languishing in refugee camps for the past two years.

But this will not affect her bid for re-election. In fact, when she led the country’s defence at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague last December, where Myanmar was accused of ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’, Suu Kyi only boosted her domestic popularity at home, bolstering her image as the “Mother of the Country”. 

However, the continued violence in the Rakhine area has made the election authorities cancel voting in large parts of Rakhine state, effectively disenfranchising the Rohingya. Civil society activists estimate that nearly two million voters are being denied their political rights as a result. But while this has reduced the credibility of the election it has had no impact on Aung San Suu Kyi’s national standing. 

“The outcome of this weekend’s elections is beyond any doubt,” Chris Tun, as an American trained management consultant, now an executive with the locally-owned AYA bank, told the South Asia Monitor. “The NLD is riding the crest of compound public emotions: the admiration and love for Daw Suu and the hatred for the past military regime. There’s no mathematics involved,” he added. 

In interviews with more than 30 voters across the country – albeit predominantly in urban areas – SAM found that more than 60% said they intended to vote for the NLD. Kyaw, a 60-year-old clerical worker in the private sector in Mandalay, said Amay Suu (or ‘Mother’ Suu as she is affectionately called by her ardent supporters) was the main reason he would vote for the NLD. Another Mandalay supporter: Myo Min Khaing, a 40-year-old taxi driver, said he was voting NLD because of his ‘love of Amay Suu’.

Having closely observed the election campaigns of 2015 and 2020, NLD supporters are more like football fans. They are highly emotional and tribal in their support. They will not be hypercritical of the party or its leaders though they are not blind to the party’s weaknesses and mistakes.

“I have grown up supporting the NLD: they’re like my family and Ma Suu is like my mother,” said Win Lwin – a 40-year-old taxi driver who lives in northern Yangon. “As long as she is alive and leads the NLD I will support them, but I know they are far from perfect and have made mistakes. At least since they came to power I don’t have to pay the police ‘tea money’ (a euphemism for a bribe),” he added.

An NLD victory will be at the very least a recognition of the party’s intimate involvement in the decades of intense struggle to establish democracy in Myanmar. Sein Lin, a 30-year-old singer from Mandalay told SAM that he was voting for the NLD because of its history. Without Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar would still be ruled by the military, he pointed out.

“It’s widely seen as a referendum on the government’s performance over the last five years,” said William Maung an independent business and financial consultant based in Yangon. “But Aung San Suu Kyi is still by far the most popular leader in the country, even though the NLD government has failed to meet the needs of the country and its citizens, and has largely failed to match reality.”

“However while the business community largely supports her and the NLD, there is growing frustration with their failures over the last five in the economic and business sectors,” he said. “In the next five years, they will have to make greater efforts to encourage investment in the country by reforming obsolete regulations, improving infrastructure and increasing the government’s capacity to attract international businesses. – or they may pay the price in the 2025 elections.”

Dent expected

While it appears to be a one-horse race, the NLD is unlikely to repeat it’s massive victory of five years ago. There is growing frustration and dissatisfaction with the NLD in the areas populated by the ethnic minorities. The ethnic political parties are expected to do well this time round. 

The last time, the NLD promised for ethnic and local issues. It promised a peace process, national reconciliation, introduction of a federal, democratic constitution with devolution of administrative power to the regional governments and parliaments. They were promised control over local natural resources. But these promises turned out to be hollow, according many members of ethnic civil societies.

“We have been betrayed,” said a Kachin political activist, who declined to be identified. “I hate her … hate, hate, hate her,” she said emphatically. The former Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) leader and veteran politician, Khun Htun Oo, a year ago told me he also hated the “Lady” and did not trust the NLD. However, he admitted he trusted the military even less. “That’s why the Shan – and other ethnic communities – must support the ethnic political parties in the forthcoming election,” he added. 

On the ground in ethnic areas, namely, the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni and Mon areas, support for the local ethnic parties is burgeoning. “Right across the ethnic areas, there is a new sense of belongingness that has been channeled into the ethnic parties, especially in Mon Kachin, Karen and Chin state” Cheery Zahau, spokesperson for the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) told SAM. “Belonging to the ethnic political parties is their way of expressing their political desires and aspirations,” she added. 

Many of these people had voted for the NLD in 2015, but have been disappointed with the party’s performance in the last five years. “In Chin state in particular, there has been no real reform, improved infrastructure or development projects. Corruption is rampant,” Cherry Zahau said. 

Dr. Sasa, a key civil society activist in Chin state, who is now a leading member of the NLD’s Chin election committee, disagrees. He admits that there has been some disaffection towards the NLD, but insists that there is a recognition that the NLD is the country’s main hope for continued democratic reform, peace and a federal constitution. 

“Only a united party -- one for all, and all for one -- can adequately represent all the ethnic groups and tribes. The ethnic parties in Rakhine, Kachin, and Chin, only represent their own narrow individual ethnic interests. No other ethnic groups are included, but in the NLD, all the ethnic groups and tribes are represented. It’s the only truly national party,” he told SAM.

“The ethnic vote will be a critical reflection on whether NLD has been able to live up to its image of itself as a truly national party, and not just a ‘central heartlands’ vehicle out of touch with the concerns and conditions of Myanmar's ethnic minorities and peripheral states,” said Nyantha Maw Lin, a political and economic consultant based in Yangon. 

The ethnic parties hope they can come together and constitute a viable collective third force. This time round, they may form a powerful enough bloc in parliament to influence the NLD’s policies and behaviour over the next five years, and be Kingmakers behind the scenes when the electoral result is close.