How Will Candidates Reach Myanmar Voters Amid COVID-19 Restrictions?

By The Irrawaddy 12 September 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! It is about two months until the November election and campaigning is due to start soon. At the same time, Myanmar is being hit by a second wave of COVID-19. Many cases have been reported in a number of cities including Yangon. So, there will be new challenges this election season. Two candidates, one a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and one from the People’s Party, join me to discuss the unique challenges of this election season and how they might be overcome. The first is Upper House lawmaker Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe of the NLD, who is running for the post of Karen ethnic affairs minister in the Yangon regional government. The second is general secretary of the People’s Party Ko Ye Naing Aung, also known as Ko Wa, who is seeking a seat in the Yangon regional parliament representing Kamayut Township. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

The current challenge is COVID-19. The election campaign starts on Sept. 8. So, Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe, how do the challenges on the ground compare to the situation back in 2015?

Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe: Before the start of the election campaign, I introduced myself to party members as a candidate for the seat [representing Karen ethnic people] in Yangon. Party members in Insein and Mingalardon know me, but party members in other townships did not know me as well, so I went to introduce myself. However, I could not go to certain townships because they are on the stay-at-home lists due to the pandemic. I had to cancel my scheduled visits. That is a new problem. If we are to go out on the campaign trail, there are other problems. According to current health guidelines from the government, a maximum of 50 people can gather, and they must stay 6 feet apart while wearing masks and face shields. And our party also requires us to follow those guidelines strictly. Even stricter rules may be put in place if the situation gets worse.

KZM: Ko Wa, what sorts of challenges might lie ahead if the situation gets worse? What plans has your party made to deal with these complications to the campaign?

Ko Wa: The challenge is even greater for new parties like ours. At a time when we need to engage the public as frequently as possible, COVID-19 has kept us apart. This is the first challenge. Because an election is the process of selecting the representatives to whom the sovereignty of the country will be handed over, there must be a minimum norm to ensure that the process is free and fair. Given the restrictions caused by COVID-19, this norm may be compromised currently. But there must be a minimum norm. It is quite difficult for parties to campaign now. A recent report from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance suggests that the election should be postponed if there’s a big increase in COVID-19 cases. My assessment is that the challenge is quite big even now. If the situation gets worse, there will be a question of how to balance public health with the need to ensure a free and fair election that will have an impact on the sovereignty of the country for the next five years and more. I don’t want the Union Election Commission (UEC) to make the decision all by itself whether or not to hold the election. Instead it should take steps in coordination with political parties and civil society organizations (CSOs). Initially it said it would not allow the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) to monitor the November vote. Now it has said it would allow it. But, it is still unclear. In a crisis such as the current situation, the UEC should take prompt steps to engage more with political parties and CSOs to find the best possible solution.

KZM: The UEC has attracted considerable criticism. Besides what Ko Wa just pointed out, it has also been criticized for a lack of transparency and a lack of engagement with the media. Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe, have you noticed shortcomings on the part of the UEC?

SHHS: When I registered to run for Karen ethnic affairs minister, I found there were errors [in voter lists], and I immediately reported the matter to the UEC. Most of the names of Karen voters were spelled wrongly. Karen voters complained that [Burmese honorific] titles such as U and Daw were used for their names. They don’t like that. They also complained that [Karen honorifics] like Saw were removed from their names. And some were not included on voter lists at all. I talked to the UEC about it. I also filed a letter of complaint. The UEC in Naypyitaw responded immediately, and asked [the Yangon commission] to fix the errors. I am satisfied with that response. But on the ground, there is no effective method of fixing errors. Election commission officials blamed the computer system for errors in data entry. But those who are computer literate said the process is easier with computers. As to the right to vote for Karen ethnic affairs minister, some requirements have been relaxed. For example, a person can cast a vote for the Karen minister if one of his or her parents is ethnically Karen. But that information did not reach the people on the ground. This is a serious problem. How much can I travel [under COVID-19 restrictions] and explain this to the voters?  It is important that this information reaches the public. I have also complained about it to the UEC in Naypyitaw, and they said they would provide instructions [to the Yangon election commission]. There were also other errors, like the names of the parents of the voters being the same. As you know, Facebook users have been critical about the failures. The UEC needs to improve its performance.

KZM: Ko Ye Naing Aung, the People’s Party was also born out of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and founded by activists like you and Ko Ko Gyi. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have enormous influence. So let me ask candidly, how difficult is it for the party to compete with the NLD in a democratic election?

KW: At the national level, the NLD has continuously been at the forefront of the democracy movement. And because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is regarded as the leader of the democracy movement, some believe that the NLD is the only party that is a force for democracy. Such a notion can adversely shape the future of our country. I am not asking the voters to support and vote for us. But the problem is that not many people know the country’s history well and are able to identify those who have actively participated in the democracy movement.

KZM: Back in 2015, the election was more black and white. It was a rivalry between the NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) formed by ex-leaders of the military. But there are more colors in the November election. But we are still in the transition process. The military still holds 25 percent of seats in the Parliament, and it has a certain degree of power. The NLD has called for voting for its party so that it can form a government. Only when it can form a government will it be able to continue the transition. What is your view on it, Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe?

SHHS: The NLD has always said that it will be able to form the government only when it wins the majority. In a multiparty democracy, parties have the right to participate in the election. The NLD must try to secure an electoral victory. And new parties will also try. And the people will decide.

KZM: Many have argued that the NLD does not give enough attention to ethnic issues and improving its relations with ethnic parties. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD have said that their party is a Union party. Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe, you are an ethnic Karen woman but joined the NLD. To what extent are those criticisms accurate?

SHHS: It is difficult to answer that in black and white. We look at the policies of the party. Ethnic issues and peace top the election manifesto of our party. Still, the party sticks to a federal, democratic Union.  As an ethnic person, I am satisfied with that approach. The party has a policy of giving priority to ethnic people in selecting candidates [for election]. That much is true. Ko Wa, you said the NLD does not bother to maintain friendly ties with ethnic parties. But I think that is a personality problem, rather than a policy problem. Ethnic issues are still the top priority of the NLD.

KZM: Your rival for the Karen ethnic affairs minister post, Daw Naw Ohn Hla, is an activist who has continuously taken an active part in the democracy movement and was imprisoned a number of times. How do you feel about competing with her?

SHHS: Politics is politics. You have to finish it once you have made the decision to get into it. Yes, we two have close ties, like sisters. We have known each other for many years. She supports me, and I also support her. This is democracy.

KZM: But for voters, it is difficult for them to choose between you and her.

SHHS: Karen ethnic people will have to decide.  Who do they prefer? It is up to them. What I can say is I will campaign honestly and fairly, and it is Karen people who will make the decision.

KZM: How is the situation in Kamayut now, Ko Wa?

KW: We are a new political party. The NLD is the ruling party and led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and therefore enjoys strong popular support. So we assume that our main rival will be the NLD. On the surface, it will be quite a tough task to compete with the NLD. But since 1988 when I was still a student at the Government Technical Institute, I have continuously engaged in what I believe. And I have stood by my beliefs. I have proven my genuine desire to serve the country. Despite the fact that our party is a new party, it was formed by democracy activists like me. It has proven its genuine desire to serve the country. The decision is up to the people. If we can convince people that we are committed to the interests of Kamayut and the whole country, we will get the results we are looking for. This is what I believe, and I am committed to running as a candidate based on that belief.

KZM: If you won the election, do you have any new ideas that are different from those of the current officeholder?

KW: Kamayut has played an important role in the history of our country. Yangon University turned out people like [independence hero] General Aung San and [Myanmar’s first prime minister] U Nu and was also the place where the independence struggle originated. It was also the birthplace of student movements that led to the pro-democracy uprising in 1988. And universities are concentrated in Kamayut. If I were elected to represent Kamayut, there is a need to maintain and promote the things I have mentioned that are values of our country. Personally, I think they are in relative obscurity today. There is a need to polish that legacy. At the same time, there is a need to work for development. Hledan [in Kamayut] is a busy place teeming with people and vehicles. A large number of middle-class families and tenants reside there. But there is limited public space, and little green space there. There is a need to expand public space and brighten green spaces. For example, we should establish a public space like a bike path—though this needs discussion from all perspectives—in Hledan. And we should adopt more effective methods to promote the historical places that I have mentioned so that they receive both national and international attention. In short, we need to put Kamayut on the world’s map. The bike path established by Yangon Heritage Trust in Pansodan Street, though it is a short one, received a lot of attention. What is important is we must have commitment.

KZM: As far as I can see, ethnic affairs ministers also have to take responsibility for things other than those involving the ethnic people they represent. Ma Susanna Hla Hla Soe, what notable things would you like to accomplish if you were elected to the post?

SHHS: After I decided to stand for the election, I made an online survey on ethnic Karen people in Yangon. The results were interesting not only for Yangon, but also for the whole country. According to the survey results, there are difficulties in learning the Karen language. The government provides teaching, but on the ground, learning is a little difficult. That’s partly because Karen language teachers are scarce.

KZM: What is the population of Karen people in Yangon Region?

SHHS: There are some 270,000 Karen people in Yangon. And there are many Karen migrants, especially those from Ayeyarwady Region. They lamented the lack of job opportunities [in the survey]. And there are large numbers of Karen farmers in Hmawbi, Taikkyi and Hlegu. They reported the loss of farmland. Based on that survey, I will meet their needs. I have also carried out a second survey. We will assess the results of the two surveys with the assistance of technicians and adopt a strategy. And we will adopt and implement plans. I will help them do what they want to do, not what I want to do. Another interesting thing is that the respondents mentioned self-determination. This is what Karen people have demanded—along with equality —for a long time. The respondents also asked to have their names spelt correctly on voter lists.

KZM: How difficult is it to achieve equality and autonomy of national races in their respective states during the tenure of the NLD? The 2008 Constitution is still in force. There are visible and invisible obstacles. What are the obstacles to achieving goals like equality and autonomy?

SHHS: What are the obstacles? We are moving towards federalism. We will be able to overcome the challenges when we achieve genuine federalism. For this, all of us must work together. It is impossible for the Karen alone to achieve this goal. What all our national races including Bamar need is a federal democratic Union. The 2008 Constitution that hinders the realization of that goal must be amended.

KZM: These are also reiterated in the latest election manifesto of the NLD. It highlights issues like internal peace, moving forward to a federal democratic Union and national reconciliation. Looking at the most important issue of the role of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military], we can see its role is different from the one stated in the 2015 election manifesto. In terms of defense and security, [according to the NLD manifesto] the main duty of the Tatmadaw is to defend the citizens, to be a reliable army for the public and to stand with the policy of the government elected by the people in accordance with democratic norms. It is carefully phrased as “to stand with the policy of the government”. Critics say the government and Tatmadaw have been two separate entities during the past four years. Some even say it is as if there are two governments in Myanmar. Are these obstacles for the issues you just outlined?

SHHS: Based on my parliamentary experience in the past five years, it is very difficult to achieve these goals. Even when a bill was debated, their opinions were completely divided, for instance. One side voted unanimously for a bill while the other side voted unanimously against it.

KZM: Do you mean the opposition between Tatmadaw representatives and those of the NLD and democratic parties?

SHHS: Mostly their opinions were in opposition, although they sometimes agreed. This was an obstacle. I think the objectives stated in the [NLD] election manifesto are bold decisions and reflect the desires of the people. People want to see a modern and professional army. Only when the Tatmadaw has become a modern and professional army will we be able to overcome the obstacles.

KZM: Will there be brighter prospects for a federal Union and equality between 2020 and 2025 after democratic forces win the election, or will the stalemate continue? There are stalemates in politics as there are in chess. Then there is no forward movement.

SHHS: In my opinion, the stalemate will not persist in the long run because the public is very enthusiastic about (overcoming the challenges). Nothing can be prevented from happening when the public is behind it. We have seen this in our political experience. This must be realized. At the same time, it is important to move toward that trend delicately.

KZM: Establishing a federal democratic Union concerns the entire country, and requires collective effort. The 2008 Constitution is an obstacle to this, although some parties and organizations support and defend it.  What is your view on the period beyond 2020?

KW: In my opinion, we can say in principle that all of us, including even the Tatmadaw, agree to establish a federal Union in principle, as [the military] signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. However, the practical issue is that the 25 percent [allocation of Parliament to] the Tatmadaw is against international democratic norms. In terms of democratic norms, the Tatmadaw must completely withdraw from politics. It must perform its duty under the civilian government elected by the people. This is what should be. However, how shall we move from our current position to where we should be? That is a serious challenge for us.

KZM:  What is the method for accomplishing that?

KW: Yes, method. In trying to amend the 2008 Constitution, we support every effort to amend it. However, the practical issue is that it cannot be amended without the support of the Tatmadaw. How shall we overcome that? That is a major challenge. One of the ways to change the situation, which we have not taken into consideration at present, is to pressure the Tatmadaw to accept [constitutional reform] through a public movement and the force of the people. This has not been taken into consideration seriously. Currently, we are attempting to persuade the Tatmadaw to take steps toward democracy through negotiations. This has not worked so far. And if it doesn’t, what shall we do? Basically, it is difficult to say for sure that the Constitution could be amended between 2020 and 2025. Pragmatically speaking, it is very difficult. However, we cannot stop just because it is difficult. What we need to do during the period is to strengthen democratic institutions and democratic forces. As the strengthening of democratic forces and institutions is the most important, we desperately need cooperation and coordination among those institutions. This cannot be done by an individual or an organization alone. We need to understand this clearly. The most discouraging fact about the NLD from my perspective is its attitude that they don’t need allies. It is completely the opposite of what our country needs. This is most discouraging and worrisome. We are the people who joined hands with the NLD for more than 30 years during the pro-democracy movement. Why can’t the NLD cooperate with its own allies? We are neither demanding offices nor privileges. We are requesting the NLD to cooperate and coordinate together for our country. I would like to say seriously that it is very important to cooperate and negotiate together for the future of our country.

KZM: Thanks for your contributions.

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