Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the by-election held on April 1. Political commentator Dr. Yan Myo Thein and founder of Yangon Watch group Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese reporter Kyaw Kha.
First of all, I would like to discuss low voter turnout in the by-election. Daw Nyo Nyo Thein, why was the turnout so low?
Daw Nyo Nyo Thein: The turnout in the by-election declined compared to previous elections. In Hlaingtharyar, the turnout was 12 percent and in downtown Rangoon the turnout was 27 percent for an Upper House seat. Turnout has significantly declined. This indicates that public interest in politics has declined, for which politicians—including me—have to be blamed. Politicians cannot manage to stimulate public interest in politics.
Another important thing that is cause for concern is that people seem to assume that any political change that takes place will not change their daily lives. I wonder if people feel down because they can’t get the changes they want despite previously voting overwhelmingly in favor of change. This is what concerns me.
KK: There were long queues of voters at polling stations in Rangoon during the 2012 by-election and 2015 general election. But, there were few voters on April 1, and it seems that people were not keen to vote. What do you think, Dr. Yan Myo Thein?
Yan Myo Thein: From what I have studied, people voted for change in the 2015 general election. But one year after they voted—not that there should be immediate change—people had expectations that certain things should have been changed. There has been increasing criticism that the government cannot even fulfill minimal expectations.
For example, in Rangoon, the Yangon Bus Service [YBS] doesn’t give the faintest impression of success. It just changed the name from Ma Hta Tha [Rangoon Motor Vehicles Supervisory Committee] to YBS, and has not effectively relieved the burden placed on Rangoon residents.
Over the past year, people have felt frustration, dissatisfaction and disappointment, but they don’t have many choices. So, they chose not to vote. Therefore, turnout was just over 12 percent in Hlaingtharyar Township, and in downtown Rangoon—occupied by the majority of the country’s educated people, businessmen, and well-off people—turnout was just 27 percent.
I see this as an indicator that grassroots, educated and business people all feel dissatisfied. The current government, Parliament and the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), should take this into consideration. If not, it will cause hindrances and delays in the democratization process of our country.
KK: The NLD contested 18 seats and won nine, or 50 percent in the by-election. It lost primarily in Shan State, but I think the NLD is most upset about its loss in Mon State’s Chaungzon Township. In the 2015 election, the NLD’s Daw Khin Htay Kywe won there by a huge margin. Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin, what do you think?
NNT: Compared to the 2015 election, the NLD received far fewer votes in the April 1 by-election in Chaungzon. In 2015, it won more than 40 percent of the total votes; in the by-election, it received just over 20 percent. This is irrefutable proof that public support for the NLD has declined there. This clearly shows that local people are dissatisfied with the government of the ruling party regarding the bridge case. This is reality and cannot be concealed. The NLD government should learn from this bridge fiasco and avoid doing unwise things in the future. It should by no means have aggressively changed the name of a bridge to Gen. Aung San [despite local objections in Mon State].
KK: The case was even brought before lawmakers and decided by a vote.
NNT: Yes, it was and it was like the majority bullying the minority. The majority should make sure that the minority does not feel bullied. But it failed to do so and this will seriously undermine national reconciliation, which we are trying to build. Therefore, the NLD should not name the bridge Gen Aung San Bridge.
KK: The NLD won nine seats in the by-election, but that was probably not their target number. Dr. Yan Myo Thein, what does this result suggest?
YMT: Frankly speaking, the NLD fell short of its target in the by-election. I think the NLD should have won more than that, perhaps 10 or 11 seats. But as Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin has discussed, we can’t assume that the bridge name is a problem concerning Mon State and Mon people alone. The name change set off an alarm for other ethnic groups too. It made them think that if the NLD could do this in Mon State, it could also do it in Shan or Kachin or Chin states. So, in ethnic regions, ethnic people resolutely voted for their local ethnic parties.
If we compare the percentage of voter turnout in ethnic regions and majority Bamar regions, we can see that turnout is higher in ethnic regions. This suggests that ethnic groups have become more aware of the need to hold strong and focus on ethnic politics. Again, the naming of the bridge in Mon State’s Chaungzon will have this consequence—ethnic groups’ faith will decline in the government’s proposed path of dialogue for national reconciliation, trust building, and the peace process.
If the government can’t even hold political dialogue regarding a bridge name, I doubt that ethnic groups will believe that the government can solve much bigger problems through political dialogue.
The government, Parliament and the ruling party should seriously think again about changing the name of Thanlwin Bridge [Chaungzon] to Gen Aung San Bridge. Otherwise, I’m concerned that this will create a black stain on the ongoing peace process and political history of our country.
KK: As far as we’ve learned, in ethnic regions where ethnic parties won in the by-election, the NLD did not actively rally the public, but only went to those areas just before the election. It seems that they took it for granted that they would easily win. Was that a mistake?
YMT: I think the ruling party should support and closely cooperate with ethnic parties. Since the NLD government has taken office, I haven’t seen the president or the state counselor holding talks with leaders of ethnic parties. According to the situation and requirements of our country, we need to join hands and stand together with ethnic people, and always listen to their voices. Those in power can’t only listen to their voices just before the election.
KK: It can be said that the NLD has learned some lessons from the by-election. It did not campaign enough leading up to it and it turned a blind eye to the voices of local people regarding the bridge in Chaungzon Township. And there were consequences. It lost in Chaungzon where it won in 2015. The next general election is in 2020, and I think the NLD has to learn these lessons if it wants to see good results then. So, Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, what do you think the government should fix or change?
NNT: Over the past year, we have monitored the government and found that there was too much centralization in it. One of the reasons behind the NLD’s loss in Chaungzon is that the party’s central executive committee rejected the candidate selected by the local hardcore party members. The ruling party must reduce centralization from now on.
It must also build national reconciliation with ethnic groups. In the 2020 general election, the NLD should not contest in ethnic regions where there are established ethnic parties. If it contests, it will create discord between it and ethnic groups, and will seriously impact progress in the country, which still has a long way to go. I want the NLD leadership to take these two points into serious consideration. It is a must for the NLD to reduce centralization and reconcile with ethnic groups for the sake of the 2020 election.
KK: What do you think Dr. Yan Myo Thein?
YMT: One year has passed, and there are still four years, so there is a reasonable amount of time. The government should carefully and systematically review its actions over the past year and be honest about its shortcomings. And the government, Parliament and the ruling party should adopt a strategy to systematically fix its weaknesses and shortcomings in the next four years. As Daw Nyo Nyo Thin pointed out, highly centralized control should be reduced in the government, Parliament and the ruling party. When there is strict centralization, it seems like everyone has to work in fear. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has talked about “freedom from fear,” which is needed now more than ever as we move toward a democratic society. There is a real need for systematic decentralization. The active participation of the people is extremely critical in the democratization process. The decline in voter turnout in the by-election is directly related to the decline in public interest in the political transition of the country. Therefore, the NLD government should take this seriously and try to mend it.
KK: Thank you for your contributions!