Can Young Female Candidates Gain a Foothold With Myanmar’s Voters?

By The Irrawaddy 24 October 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Our program often features the voices of seniors. But this week, let’s listen to the voices of young people, since they are the future of our country. This week I have invited candidates who will run for the first time in the Nov. 8 election. And they are just over 20 years old. We’ll discuss why they are running in this tough competition, how they feel, what motivated them, and what challenges they are facing on the ground.

One of our guests is Ma Sang Nu Pan, from Kachin State’s Myitkyina, who will run on the ticket of the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP). Another is Ma Ei Thinzar Maung from the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS), who will run for a Lower House seat in Yangon’s Pabedan Township. We also invited young candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), but they did not receive permission from the party to take part in our discussion. So, I will only be talking with candidates from the KSPP and the DPNS.

Ma Sang Nu Pan, what motivated you to run?

Sang Nu Pan: We had expected after the 2015 election that there would be some changes. But there has been little change in Myanmar’s ethnic states including Kachin State. We are concerned about future generations. We don’t want to leave behind a grim future for them. We have ambitions and concerns for them. There is no ethnic equality in Myanmar and no equal rights for people in ethnic states. If there were equality in ethnic states, people there would be able to live together, and we would be able to build the federal democratic Union we desire.

KZM: Politics is always tough. As far as I know, both of you have been imprisoned. Ma Ei Thinzar Maung, what motivated you to run for office at such a young age?

Ei Thinzar Maung: I want the voices of youth to be well represented in Parliament. I want the visions and concerns of young people to be advanced. And people always doubt the abilities of young people. We are almost totally restricted by social barriers, rather than simply being assigned jobs to do. As a young woman, I want to prove that we are capable. That’s why I’m running.

KZM: It is said that the NLD’s popularity has declined in some states these days. But it is still a strong party. Ma Sang Nu Pan, how is your campaign going and what are the challenges when it comes to competing with big parties like the NLD and others? Do you think you can win?

SNP: It seems the chance is 50-50 at the moment. It will depend on the choice of the people.  And of course the campaign is affected by COVID-19 restrictions. The situation is not as bad as in Yangon, where the entire city is under lockdown. But Myitkyina is quite a big town and more than 200,000 are eligible to cast their votes there in November’s election, while fewer than 50 people are allowed to gather for an event.

The campaign period is just two months, and we will only be able to reach 40,000 people at the most because of the restrictions on public gatherings. But we need to secure at least 70,000 to 80,000 valid votes to be able to win the election. We are trying our best, but it will depend on the will of the people. I am the only woman candidate younger than 30 years old to contest in an election since 2015 [in Kachin]. Gender stereotypes remain fairly entrenched in our society.  But as we meet people [as part of our campaign], they become aware that young people are going into politics and they begin to support the idea of young people taking leadership roles. This will be a great advantage for the young people who will choose to run in 2025. There are a lot of challenges, but I will overcome them.

KZM: The situation is different in Yangon, where almost the entire city is under lockdown, and it is even difficult to travel between townships. It is actually more difficult to campaign in Yangon than it is in Myitkyina. And another thing is that the NLD led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is very strong in [Burmese-majority areas]. So, I think the challenge will be bigger. How difficult is it to campaign in Pabedan?

ETM: When I decided to run for office, I didn’t expect that I would receive this much support. As a candidate, I have confidence in my ability, but I had the fears of a young girl who comes from a rural area. But I have received considerable support. Many welcomed me as a candidate, and I have met many supporters in my campaign. So this makes me think that we need to open a new chapter in the [Burmese-majority areas]. Here, there should be a third option for people who like neither the NLD nor the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). A new hope has emerged recently, I think. I am more than satisfied and grateful that I have received considerable support.  Candidates have to search for alternatives since they can’t meet directly with voters due to COVID-19. As a result, those candidates with better imaginations are ahead of their competitors.

KZM: There is dissatisfaction with our political landscape and the issue of ethnic rights. Ma Sang Nu Pan, the country is no longer under a military dictatorship, and the elected NLD has been in office since 2016.  So it can be called a democratic era. But in the Parliament, 25 percent of the seats are guaranteed for the Myanmar military. And the NLD thus faces challenges in the Parliament. What do you think are the weaknesses of the NLD government and what promises has it failed to fulfill?

SNP: The key to this problem is equality, I would say. The pledges of the Panglong Agreement have not yet been realized. Ethnic people are demanding equality based on that agreement. The NLD said that it has no plan to form a coalition government with ethnic parties. The NLD is a democratic force, and we ethnic people do not view it as an enemy. In fact, we have worked together with it for a long time. All we want is for the NLD to form a government together with us at both the state and national levels and work together for the betterment of states and Myanmar. We ethnic people have no intention of taking control of all of Myanmar. We only want to work together.

KZM: Ma Ei Thinzar Maung, you might also be frustrated with certain activities of the NLD government. That’s why you entered politics and decided to stand for election. What do you think the NLD has done wrong?

ETM: Over the past five years, the party did not listen and failed to pay heed to criticism. And as for freedom of expression, [NLD] lawmakers prosecuted [those who criticized them]. I am not happy with that. But this does not mean we view the NLD as an enemy. Until now, we regard the party as a potential ally that we have to work together with. We do want to cooperate on things of mutual interest. But because they are not cooperating with us, we need to enter Parliament independently to represent our policies. We must win to be able to represent our policies and the voices of the people. This is the reason for our candidacy.

KZM: Both of you were political prisoners. Ma Ei Thinzar Maung spent one year behind bars. Despite your age, you have both demonstrated experience and strong determination. Unlike other countries, our country was under a dictatorship for some 60 years. And as Ma Sang Nu Pan has said, there are social stereotypes. Speaking of Parliament, most of the lawmakers are older individuals and there are also military lawmakers. Women were barely given any positions under military rule. All the generals are men. You have to compete for office in such an environment. Women lawmakers only account for some 13 percent of MPs in the current Parliament. How have you prepared for this, Ma Sang Nu Pan?

SNP: There are tougher challenges for me because in Yangon and Mandalay, women candidates are as well educated as their male counterparts. There are educated women candidates in my party. But I am the only woman candidate younger than 30 in my party. You can see how massive the challenge is. Young women have to prepare to face challenges inside the party as well as the challenges imposed by gender stereotypes and social norms. Young people must enter politics for the sake of younger generations. I want the young people to understand that. I find that our young people are barely engaged in politics. If this continues, the future of Kachin State will be a real cause for concern in the next 10 years. I personally want to communicate to young people that they must be part of the political process and that they should become involved for the sake of their state.

KZM: In fact, there will be more female voters than male voters. Women account for 51 percent of the total population in our country. But in terms of political power and influence, men always dominate. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, however, is an excellent example of how women can change their stereotypical image… What preparations have you made to compete politically in such an environment?

ETM: Women candidates are more likely to be confronted with questions about their abilities than male candidates are. We don’t know exactly what the yardstick to measure someone’s ability is. There are no standard criteria for that.

As you’ve said, women account for more than half of the country’s population. But politically, they are still in the minority, and they still can’t participate at the forefront. There is a great need for women to support other women. Culturally and traditionally, women have taken the role of homemaker, and politics is still out of the reach of many women. But now it is time women stepped forward.

I need the support of a lot of female voters in my constituency. I have adopted plans regarding the protection, social security and political awareness of women. And we have to push for removal of legal barriers that bar women from entering politics. For example, the electoral system is a first-past-the-post system, which poses considerable barriers to electing women to Parliament. Proportional representation would ensure women greater representation in Parliament. Again, women’s ability to become candidates depends on the policies of their parties. So, we urge parties to choose more women candidates and we need the strong support of female voters.

KZM: As I’ve said, our country was under military rule for many years. But now, young people like you have the right to seek office in democratic elections. Meanwhile in Thailand, people are staging mass protests [to reform the] constitutional monarchy. Similar events happened in Myanmar in 1988, 1996 and 2007. Elections started to take place only after 2010, though the government that emerged from the 2010 election was quasi-civilian and led by ex-General Thein Sein. What is your assessment of the current situation in Myanmar? At the same time, there has been criticism by the international community that the November election will not be fair. What is your assessment of the overall electoral process?

SNP: I’d say we lag far behind parties in the [Burmese-majority areas]. They have prepared a lot, and most of their candidates are educated. The People’s Pioneer Party, for instance, led by Daw Thet Thet Khaing, has many young and educated candidates. This is very good. In Kachin State, we lag far behind in that regard. We have yet to give it our best effort, and we have to keep on pushing. We faced tough challenges in the 2010 and 2015 elections. We were not satisfied with our performance, and in the 2020 election we will continue to do our best to tackle the challenges. We will need a lot of support. Compared with the international community, we lag far behind in many aspects.

KZM: What is your assessment, Ma Ei Thinzar Maung?

ETM: Thai people are quite brave to criticize the monarchy, as the king is untouchable in Thailand. It is admirable that young Thai people are leading the protest with progressive attitudes. Young people here do not lag behind in that regard.  But it is more systematic in Thailand. They have a detailed agenda about what to do on which day, who will speak and what will be said. But in Myanmar, we are less organized. There is still some room for better organization among students in Myanmar. Students and young people are not cooperating as they should be in our country. Student unions act on their policies and so do young people. Because they fail to work as a unified entity, they don’t attract sufficient media attention. But compared with their peers in other Asian countries, young people in Myanmar are not dumb or dull.

KZM: Recently, three NLD candidates—two women and a man—including [two] current lawmakers—were abducted by an armed group [Note: the Arakan Army has claimed responsibility] in Taungup in Rakhine State. What would you like to say in response? It is an incident of electoral violence. Civilians in Rakhine have been subject to torture. But the abduction was politically targeted electoral violence. What is your response, Ma Ei Thinzar Maung?

ETM: We have to be very cautious in areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] because we have to remain engaged both with those ethnic armed groups and the government. We should be extra careful in such sensitive areas. Generally speaking, detention of candidates is not acceptable. But the ruling party and the government have said nothing about the clashes in Rakhine, the detention and prosecution of Rakhine people, or the fact that whole villages have been reduced to ashes. It only spoke out when its own party members were detained. Local people feel that is not fair.

KZM: What is your response, Ma Sang Nu Pan?

SNP: We have to exercise extra caution in regions where ethnic armed organizations have not signed the ceasefire agreement. Some [EAOs] might have done so deliberately in response to misinformation against them. We are also subject to misinformation, but not to the extent that it prompted the Kachin Independence Army [KIA] to abduct [NLD lawmakers]. We are often accused of being the KIA’s proxy as well as an ally of the USDP. Various rumors have been spread against us. I think the case in question is retaliation for misinformation. In fact, in the election campaign we should engage one another based on truth in the interests of the people. If parties are denigrating one another in their actions, things will turn really bad. Regarding the case in question, I’d say the armed group should not have taken that action, and they should avoid doing so in the future.

KZM:  What would you like to say as a young person to current government and military leaders and lawmakers, most of whom are in their advanced years?

SNP: Young people are expected to take part in the country’s affairs in 2020 election. I hope that everyone will welcome this. There should not be a political dispute over allowing young people to participate in decision-making. Seniors always say they will help us along. I would like to urge them to make their words come true at this time. I would like to urge them to work together for the development of the country.

ETM: If they begin assisting young people now, there will be better opportunities in the future for young people. Many young people are running in the election in 2020. And this will help encourage many more young people to contest the election in 2025. This is a good step toward a better future.

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