An ethnic party fightback? The races to watch in the April 1 by-elections

A voter casts a ballot in a rural polling station in Kengtung Township, eastern Shan State, in November 2015. One seat in the state parliament is up for grabs in Kengtung Township on April 1. Photo: Ben Dunant
By Ben Dunant

For most in Myanmar, April 1 will be just another hot Saturday: a day spent fine-tuning plans for the five-day Thingyan holiday and enduring lengthy power cuts. However, around 2.1 million citizens will have the option of walking to their nearest school compound to drop votes in a ballot box.

Most voted not so long ago, in the general election of November 2015. They are being asked to do so again after the candidates they chose were promoted as ministers, leaving behind empty seats. In three constituencies, the elected parliamentarian died in the year-and-a-half since. In others, voting was cancelled in 2015 due to conflict.

Whether the voters—strung across 19 constituencies in Yangon, Bago and Sagaing regions and Shan, Chin, Kayah and Mon states—will choose to exercise their franchise (again) is a difficult to gauge. A hefty drop from the 69 percent turnout in 2015 seems inevitable.

Equally hard to guess at is whether they will use their votes to send a message of support, or of dissatisfaction, to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD)—or whether frustration over the stalled peace process will result in a bump for ethnic parties in non-Bamar constituencies.

Although most of the seats now open were stormed by the NLD in 2015, the party at that time wasn’t one year into presiding over an economic slowdown and a spiralling crisis in Rakhine State. There is no polling, and no extended history of credible elections to go by.

Meanwhile, campaigning has been negligible—candidates have largely opted for light door-to-door canvassing over public rallies. In a survey released this week by domestic observer network Election Education and Observation Partners, less than a third of voters felt they were well enough informed about the political platforms of contesting parties.

Yet, the results of some races will reverberate well beyond their negligible impact on the legislative balance of power. The NLD landslide win in 2015 set the bar high. Can they repeat the trick?

Below are outlines of the races to watch—those where the ruling NLD is on the back foot, where ethnic parties are poised to mount a fightback, and where promising political careers are at stake.

Ann Township, Rakhine State – Union Lower House

2015: Won by the USDP

Number of voters: 77,553

 Home to the Tatmadaw’s Western Command, Ann was one of several army garrison towns that remained “loyal” in 2015 to the military’s anointed party, the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which suffered an overall rout.

The party was helped by a relatively high proportion of out-of-constituency advance votes from military service members and their families. These advance votes amount to a black box in Myanmar’s electoral system: they are cast and collected behind the fences of military encampments, away from the gaze of election observers and party agents.

However, the USDP won by a whisker. This was the tightest of all contests in 2015, and was, unusually, very much a three-horse race, with the USDP at 13,037, the Arakan National Party (ANP) at 12,532, and the NLD at 11,081.

This time, while the NLD and USDP candidates are local party functionaries, the candidate for the ANP—the Rakhine ethno-nationalist force known for its hard line on denying citizenship to the Muslim Rohingya minority in the state—is the party’s rabble-rousing chairman, Aye Maung.

Although his nativist demagoguery made him a household name, a failed 2015 electoral bid in Manaung Township in southern Rakhine State—won by the NLD—was a cause of bitter humiliation for the party and for Aye Maung, who had fancied himself as the future chief minister of the state.

A win for Aye Maung this time around would consolidate his position, and that of his more hard-line faction, against those within the party favoring a more conciliatory tone with the NLD. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s stated goal of reaching a settlement on the communal conflict in Rakhine State would become a more distant prospect.

The contest will likely be tight this time around too, particularly given the NLD’s much greater level of support in southern compared to northern Rakhine State. However, the ethnic Chin voters in the township may well prove to be the kingmakers.

This time, no ethnic Chin parties are contesting. The 3,462 votes shared between the Chin League for Democracy and the Chin National Democratic Party in 2015, and now up for grabs, could tip the balance in favor of the NLD, the USDP, or even the ANP.

Chaungzon, Mon State – Union Lower House

2015: Won by the NLD

Number of voters: 126,120

 Familiar to tourists as “Ogre Island” (Bilu Gyun)—a popular day trip by boat from Mawlamyine—Chaungzon has more of an ethnic Mon population than the (relatively) cosmopolitan state capital across the water, and is largely rural.

Earlier this month, the township was implicated in one of the most dramatic pieces of identity-based activism seen in recent years, with several thousand ethnic Mon hitting the streets alongside members of Mon State’s ethnic Karen and Pa-O communities.

 The object of a contention was a government-built bridge spanning the Thanlwin (Salween) River between Mawlamyine and Chaungzon, nearing completion this month—or rather, the central government’s eleventh-hour decision to name the bridge after General Aung San, the independence hero and father of NLD chief Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ethnic Mon civil society leaders perceived it as a further advance of Burmanization—the remodeling of the country’s diversity in the image of the dominant Bamar majority—and insisted it be given a name more meaningful to the local community. Rather than backing down, the NLD government successfully pushed their desired name through Parliament.

This steamroller approach to local ethnic minority concerns could cost the NLD considerable votes in Chaungzon, to be scooped up by one of the ethnic Mon parties: the Mon National Party (MNP) and the All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMRDP).

Of the two, the AMRDP is the more serious contender, gaining three times as many votes as the MNP in the 2015 election. However, the AMRDP still has a long way to go: in 2015, it came third, beaten even by the USDP by more than 6,000 votes. The victor, the NLD, won more than twice as many votes as the AMRDP—23,580 against 10,120.

The network of branch officers held by the ethnic Mon parties, and the resources available to them, is small compared to the NLD and the USDP, who can tap influential local community members as members. It would take a significant collapse in local support for the NLD in Chaungzon for an ethnic party to claim the seat.

However, turnout will be crucial. In 2015, the township saw a relatively low turnout of 44.46 percent. This could be expected to dip even lower, given the muted level of campaigning by all parties so far. All may depend on how parties are able to mobilize their own supporters on the day.

Monghsu and Kyethi, Shan State – Union Lower House and State Parliament

2015: voting cancelled

Monghsu: 42,411 voters

Kyethi: 54,620 voters

For almost 100,000 residents of Monghsu and Kyethi townships of central Shan State, this will be their first time voting for the current national and state parliaments.

Six seats in total are in play across the two townships—two each in the state parliament, and one each for the lower house of the Union parliament. This could mean quite a haul for the party that prevails in the area.

Voting in those townships was cancelled close to Election Day in 2015 due to fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Shan State Army-North, whose political arm is the Shan State Progress Party. This fighting intensified after the ethnic armed group, headquartered in the area, refused to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord in October that year.

The area has since grown quiet, with fighting now concentrated further north in Shan State. Active conflict is unlikely to hamper the voting and counting processes.

Challenges lie more in the remoteness of many settlements, poorly linked by road, stretching election sub-commissions that are already heavily reliant on the (military-controlled) General Administration Department. We can expect the results in Monghsu and Kyethi to emerge well after most other constituencies.

However, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s most heavily armed ethnic militia, has over the last year been busy fortifying its de facto frontline line, just across the Thanlwin River from where voting will be taking place in Kyethi and Monghsu. Its relations with the Myanmar government and military have frayed considerably.

While the UWSA has little interest in by-elections, its maneuvers have led to copycat build-ups of personnel and hardware by the Tatmadaw in the two townships. These soldiers, who now comprise a reasonable chunk of the local population, can be relied upon to vote dutifully for the USDP, and possibly coerce others to do so as well.

On the flip-side, there is a concern among several parties contesting in the area—carried over from the 2015 campaign period—that the Shan State Army-North may use their coercive and moral power to induce locals into voting for what is now the strongest ethnic Shan party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

The SNLD swept the seats in the townships surrounding Mongshu and Kyethi in 2015 and is the clear favorite in these current races. However, winning all six would still make it only the second largest party in the Shan State parliament, after the USDP.

NLD candidates in the area recently lobbied for the cancellation of voting in five polling locations in Monghsu Township, complaining that the presence of Shan State Army-North soldiers prevented them from reaching voters.

The ethnic armed group publicly pledged that they would not interfere with the process and, after the election commission held meetings at the local level, the five polling locations were moved to places deemed “safer” in the township.

The more than 4,000 voters affected must now travel distances of up to 20 miles to cast their votes, according to the township election sub-commission. This won’t help turnout in a township where isolated, conflict-affected communities are already marginalized from the political process and have limited access to voter education.

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