RANGOON — Ethnic political leaders are concerned over their marginal collective role in Burma’s next Parliament, with the majority of ethnic parties enjoying few gains in last Sunday’s general election.
“It’s like we have been hit by a tsunami,” said Sai Aung Myint Khaing, a central committee member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), in explanation of the dominance of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The SNDP official said likeminded parties would have to wait and see what the NLD prioritizes in 2016 and whether it can adequately address ethnic affairs.
With little parliamentary representation, ethnic nationalities “have less chance to voice our current troubles,” Sai Aung Myint Khaing said. “It seems we will have to work from outside of the Parliament.”
While the SNDP failed to win a seat in the Nov. 8 election, its political rival, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) performed vastly better, winning 24 state parliament seats.
At the Union level, Sai Leik, a spokesperson for the SNLD, said despite two ethnic political parties—the SNLD and the Arakan National Party—performing strongly, they were “not in a position to shake up the parliament.”
The former won 13 Lower House and 3 Upper House seats, while the ANP claimed 10 Upper House and 12 Lower House seats.
But even the two parties’ combined total falls just short of the 41 seats won by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party at the Union level, with less than a dozen races left to declare.
Sai Leik said the party stood ready to cooperate with the NLD on issues of mutual concern.
“If they continue with reforms, we will cooperate. If they prioritize the peace process, we are ready to cooperate. Otherwise, if they are focused on other sectors, we will just have to continue with our own policies,” he said.
Although the NLD purported to field ethnic candidates in ethnic areas, Sai Leik said it was difficult to forecast the party’s capacity to represent local interests as its policies were centrally driven by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tu Jar, head of the Kachin State Democracy Party which won three state parliament seats and one Lower House seat in the Nov. 8 poll, said ethnic parties’ poor performance was cause for concern.
“Representation will be very weak. At this time when reforms are ongoing, ethnic voices are getting weaker,” he said, also citing the NLD’s style of centralized decision-making as potentially hampering its ability to represent ethnic interests.
‘Ethnic Affairs Will Not be Prioritized’
Nai San Hlaing, a central committee member of the Mon National Party (MNP), was even more adamant that the NLD could not effectively address ethnic issues, claiming the party did not differentiate between citizen’s rights and ethnic rights.
“If they really want to represent us, they will have to really study the needs of ethnics,” Nai San Hlaing told The Irrawaddy.
In Mon State, the NLD won 40 of 45 contested seats. The MNP picked up wins in three Mon State races—one state and one Upper House seat in Ye Township, and another state seat in Mudon Township (Mudon-2).
Saw Than Myint, deputy chair of the Federal Union Party, formed in 2013 by former members of 16 ethnic political parties, said the party failed to claim a seat in the Nov. 8 poll.
“During the time of Ma Sa La [the Burma Socialist Programme Party], it was only a one party system. It was the same when the USDP won. It will be no different in the coming 2016-20 period,” he said. “Ethnic affairs will not be prioritized.”
Saw Than Myint said his party would seek to engage successful ethnic MPs on legislative matters and continue to work with political parties outside the parliamentary process.
“The [major] parties are very weak in terms of ethnic affairs. [Ethnic affairs] have never been a priority since independence,” he said.
Saw Dixon Tun Lin of the Karen People’s Party, which won a solitary seat in the state parliament, said ethnic Karen were unlikely to see the benefits of an NLD dominated legislature.
He lamented the fact that some experienced ethnic Karen candidates had lost to relatively unknown NLD candidates in the state. However, he declared a “wait and see” approach on how the NLD would approach democratization and the peace process, saying reconciliation should be all-encompassing and not just between “Bamar and Bamar.”