Will Myanmar’s Next Govt Be an Ethnic-NLD Coalition?

By The Irrawaddy 27 June 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we will discuss the expectations and concerns of the ethnic parties for the 2020 general elections, and how ethnic parties can build bargaining power. Vice-Secretary 1 U Sai Nyunt Lwin of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy [SNLD] joined me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

First of all, I would like to thank you for participating in the Dateline program.

Sai Nyunt Lwin: My pleasure.

YN: Political parties are making preparations for the coming election. What is the target of the SNLD for the 2020 election? How many seats does the party think it can win in Shan State and the Union Parliaments, and how has the party prepared?

SNL: It is difficult for us to say what our target is. As we contested the 2015 election, we will also run in the 2020 election. We will try to win the seats that we won in the 2015 election. There were constituencies that we lost unexpectedly in 2015, and we will try to win back those seats. This is our ambition for the time being.

We can only contest in Shan, Kachin and Kayah states and Mandalay Region at the very most. We have limited resources to rally public support, so we will only be able to contest in those places.

YN: Political analysts suggest that unlike the 2015 general election, the contest will be more intense in ethnic areas between ethnic parties, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Ethnic parties have merged in order to avoid splitting votes, for example in Kachin and Chin states. What is the potential for a merger between the SNLD and another major Shan party, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) in Shan State?

SNL: Frankly speaking, there is nothing yet. Yes, the contest will be intense in the 2020 election, especially in border areas. The UEC reduced the residency requirement for voting rights of internal migrants from six months to 90 days. This can seriously impact ethnic parties in border areas and it is not yet clear how the UEC will verify if people have resided in a place for the 90 consecutive days needed to be able to cast a vote. There could be disputes as a result.

YN: Can you elaborate on your views? The competition will be more intense in ethnic areas. The NLD needs to secure over 50 percent of seats to form the government. It secured 57 percent of seats in the 2015 election. Political analysts say that the NLD may not be able to repeat its 2015 victory this time, so the party will need to ally with ethnic parties if it is unable to achieve over 50 percent. When I asked NLD Vice-Chairman Dr. Zaw Myint Maung about the potential for an alliance between the NLD and ethnic parties in a recent interview, he said the party considers ethnic issues important. If the NLD won less than 50 percent of seats and offered to form the government together with your party, what would your party say? I ask this because your party has formed alliances with other parties. Has your party reached any agreement [with the NLD] to achieve greater bargaining power?

SNL: The NLD won a landslide victory in 2015, and out of its national reconciliation policy, the party appointed members of the USDP, the CRPP [Committee Representing the People’s Parliament] and the SNLD to its cabinet. But our ways of thinking are different.

The NLD appointed individual party members to its cabinet. We in the SNLD don’t like that; our view is that if the NLD will appoint our party members to its cabinet, the NLD leadership should consult with SNLD leaders in advance and make the appointments through mutual agreement. I am talking about this now because it is important to do so, should things develop as you said in the 2020 general election. I don’t think it will work if the NLD will again appoint individual party members [from other parties] to its cabinet. We don’t want to see discrimination based on the size of party and the fact that a party is from central Myanmar.

We are fighting for equality. If we are treated as equals, we will not hesitate to negotiate. Politics is about dialogue. We want to win the election so that we can engage in dialogue with other parties. The SNLD accounts for 2.5 percent of seats in the Union Parliament. Our bargaining power will increase if we win more seats in the coming election.

YN: Can you tell me more about the SNLD’s plans to establish an alliance with ethnic parties?

SNL: We are a member of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA), which is a political alliance of around 15 ethnic political parties. Recently, Chin parties have merged and so have Kachin parties and Mon parties. Except in Shan and Rakhine states, ethnic political parties have merged in other states. As a result, they have resigned from the UNA.

Currently, there are 12 members in the UNA, but it still has partner organizations. Among them are the Democratic Party for a New Society and the UNDP [Union National Democracy Party] which was formed by elected members in the 1990 election, and so on. These are the political parties we have partnered with in order to have bargaining power regarding the election.

The UNA has partners like ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) that have signed the NCA (Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement) and civil society organizations like the WLB (Women’s League of Burma). So, we have a lot of partners to consult with.

I watched the interviews of Saya Zaw Myint Maung. At first, his voice was strong and he said the party [the NLD] did not need allies—that it would not seek alliances and that it would try to win the election and form the government on its own. But things have changed lately. We think the NLD will discuss the potential for an alliance.

YN: Suppose the NLD wins less than 50 percent of seats, and ethnic and small parties collectively secure over 25 percent of seats with the military continuing to hold 25 percent of seats. In such a scenario, will the ethnic parties take initiative to form the coalition government with the NLD? What is your view on the 25 percent of seats held by the military?

SNL: They get 25 percent of seats without running in the election. We don’t like that, but we can do nothing about it. At present, we ethnic parties collectively hold only 9 percent of seats in the Union Parliament. It is unlikely that we can win 25 percent of seats. The NLD may lose in some places, but it will not suffer from a resounding defeat. We—the UNA—may win only 4-5 percent at most. As I’ve said earlier, we formed political parties to engage in dialogue with those who have different views. We agree to disagree. We will not say “no” to any dialogue. We are ready for it when there is a need to exercise bargaining power. We are ready to engage in dialogue with any political party inside the country even if their policies are different from ours.

But it is unlikely that we will secure 25 percent of seats, even collectively. Ethnic parties only hold 9 percent of seats in the current Parliament. Even those in that 9 percent do not share the same political views. It is quite unlikely that ethnic parties with the same political views can secure 25 percent together. I am not sure ethnic parties will even contest 25 percent of the total seats.

YN: You said you are not happy with the UEC’s reduction of the residency requirement period. Do you think that move was made by the NLD government to favor their party? I ask because it is normal for incumbent parties to gain advantages in elections. Does the SNLD believe the 2020 election is a level playing field for political parties, and is the party satisfied with the UEC?

SNL: The UEC reduced the residency requirement from 180 days to 90 days without consulting anyone and later sought approval from the Parliament. As it reduced the residency requirement without consulting with any party, ethnic parties in particular have doubts about its intentions. We are not happy with it, so we are asking the UEC to consult with political parties before introducing any new regulation.

Under the previous government, the redundancy requirement was 180 days, meaning people must have at least lived in a place for 180 days in a row to be able to cast votes in that area. We were against even that. Reducing the period to further 90 days is worse. The UEC said its reasoning was that it just wants to make sure every citizen is enfranchised. But there are many ways to prevent the citizens from being disfranchised. They can cast advanced votes, postal votes and so on. But as they introduced this rule without prior consultation with political parties, this has raised doubts. To remedy this, it should consult with and seek approval from political parties in doing anything in the future.

YN: What else are you concerned about for the election? Are you concerned that the election won’t be free and fair?

SNL: As far as I’ve learned, the UEC does not like election monitoring bodies. This is unacceptable. There must be third-party independent monitoring bodies. Without such bodies saying that the election is free and fair, people will doubt the credibility of the election no matter how much the UEC claims the election is free and fair. To ensure a free and fair election, there must be monitoring and confirmation by independent monitoring organizations. Only with their nod can we be fully confident that the election can be free and fair. So I want the UEC to allowed monitoring bodies.

I heard that some regulations by the UEC have imposed restrictions for monitoring bodies. The confirmation by international election observers is very important. The ruling party has an advantage because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who enjoys popular support. The NLD won a landslide victory in 2015 because she campaigned across the country. At the time, she had not yet taken up the top government position, equivalent to a head of state. But as today she is the State Counselor, she can’t perform duties in her party. We are very interested to see whether she will continue to campaign for her party around the country in the coming election. It is likely that she will resign as State Counselor two months before the election and go work for her party. It is certain that the election will be held while the COVID-19 crisis continues. The UEC needs to consider the safety of voters and make necessary preparations.

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