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Frustrated Myanmar minorities aim to thwart Suu Kyi in elections

Ethnic Parties In Conflict Zones Merge To Challenge NLD In Parliament Race

Thousands demonstrate in support of the Kachin State People's Party in Myitkyina, Myanmar, on Oct. 17. (Photo by Zau Ring Hpra)

Ethnic minorities are hoping that their parties will make gains in Myanmar's general elections on Nov. 8 so as to break the stalemate in peace talks between groups that has festered over the last five years under Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Bauk Nu Aung, 22, is an internally displaced person living near Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in northern Myanmar. She said that she would vote for Kachin State People's Party, one of the ethnic parties contesting in the general elections, as "the candidates have always been in the front line to stand up for IDP-related issues."

Like many others, Bauk Nu Aung and her family left their village in 2012 to escape from the decades-long conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, a powerful armed group in the area. Since then, she has lived in the IDP camp, which is supported by the local Christian church and international aid.

"When the government led by Suu Kyi came to power in 2016, we put a lot of expectations that the peace would be restored. However, the fighting became more intensified instead," she told Nikkei Asia.

Conflict between the military and various ethnic armed groups has been going on for seven decades. Violence has intensified in some regions since the NLD took office in 2016. Suu Kyi has attempted to make peace through four peace conferences, but critics say negotiations have excluded key actors. The rift between the military and Suu Kyi has further hindered dialogue.

Almost 100,000 people are living in a total of 136 IDP camps in Kachin state, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Bauk Nu Aung added: "We hope that the result of this election will bring change for the destinies of Kachin people." The NLD is widely expected to win the elections.

Another Kachin, a 65-year-old farmer, also expressed disappointment with Suu Kyi's leadership: "Suu Kyi made various promises to the people of Kachin State, but nothing happened, particularly about peace. She may not have lied on purpose, but she did not keep her words... How can the Burmese people know this feeling of loss and being oppressed?"

Kachin people speak a different language and most are Christian whereas the Burman majority is Buddhist.

But Kachin state is not the only one hoping for greater representation in parliament. A similar sentiment is growing in other parts of the country -- Chin and Rakhine in the west; Kayin, Kayah and Mon in the east. In the by-elections in 2017 and 2018, NLD lost two parliamentary seats in Mon and Kachin.

Ethnic parties can pose a threat to NLD, which is required to win more than two-thirds of all constituencies to remain in control of parliament, as the military automatically gets 25% of seats.

What is different from the last elections in 2015 is that voters were then only focused on electing the NLD into power and to keep the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party at bay. NLD won the election by a landslide then.

Ethnic parties also competed in 2015 but were too splintered to secure enough votes to make a difference. They only gained 56 seats in both chambers then, of the roughly 500 up for grabs.

Learning from that experience, many ethnic parties have now merged and formed a single political party representing every ethnicity in 2019, in hopes of gaining in the "first-win-the-post" election system.

https___s3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com_psh-ex-ftnikkei-3937bb4_images__aliases_articleimage_1_8_9_8_30388981-5-eng-GB_Explaining how many parties are running for seat in her constituency (1)
Kachin State People's Party meets with its supporters in a village near Myitkyina, Kachin state. (Photo by HkawMyaw)

Kachin State People's Party, for instance, was established by the merger of three registered parties in Kachin state. There were similar moves in other ethnic states, including Mon (Mon Unity Party), Chin (Chin National League for Democracy) and Kayin (Karen National Democratic Party).

GumgrawngAwngHkam, Kachin State People's Party vice chairman, told Nikkei: "We are now capable of representing the Kachin people.'' In its manifesto, the party pledged to address local issues such as pulling out of the construction of the Myitsone Dam, a China-backed hydropower project under development.

He added that his party would form an alliance with other ethnic parties in hopes of being able to wield some influence over national politics and secure minority rights by promoting federalism built on self-determination.

But the parties face challenges including changes in election ground rules. In May, parliament approved amendments to the election law that shortened voters' residency requirement from six months to 90 days. The change was said to make it easier for migrant workers to vote, but the ethnic parties see it as a political attempt to flood the countryside, typically dominated by minorities, with Burman voters who would back the status quo.

On Oct. 16, the Union Election Commission, which claims to be independent but whose members are appointed by the NLD government, canceled elections in locations across the country due to ethnic conflict.

"It led to the exclusion of approximately 1.4 million voters," the Carter Center, a nongovernmental organization that will observe the general elections, said in a statement.

Five ethnic parties criticized the UEC's decision and some minority politicians complained that the commission was trying to suppress voters in areas where support for the ethnic parties was high. The five parties urged the UEC to reconsider its decision so as "to ensure that the ethnic minorities enjoy justice, equality and the right to vote." It also questioned the UEC's transparency and impartiality.

Nationwide, Suu Kyi and her NLD are still overwhelmingly popular. The Burman population accounts for around 70% of the total. It is not hard to see that the NLD will sweep up more than half of the seats in the contest.

Even so, the International Crisis Group warned in its latest report: "The results will likely amplify disaffection with electoral politics among minorities and could, in turn, stoke the country's numerous armed conflicts."