RANGOON — With only three weeks left to campaign for Burma’s Nov. 8 general election, candidates in remote Chin State are struggling to get the word out. But despite the difficulties of limited transportation, the destruction caused by flooding earlier this year and shortages of funding for small parties in the country’s poorest state, candidates for parties outside the mainstream are not about to back down in the face of adversity.
Of all the disadvantages they face in the mountainous state, a number of contenders said transportation is by far the biggest challenge. Chin State is home to some 258,000 eligible voters, but many of them live in areas that are difficult—if not impossible—to reach during the allotted two-month campaign period. The state has few roads and the terrain is rough in all seasons, though recent flooding made matters inestimably worse.
Bridges were swept away, felled trees blocked off throughways, landslides took down homes and clogged up what few routes were available. Many roads are still impassable by car, and even able-bodied candidates can barely make the rounds by motorbike.
“Older candidates are facing a lot of problems,” said Mhgepi Thian Uk Thang, one of two general secretaries for the Chin National Democratic Party (CNDP). Seeking a seat in the state legislature for Falam Township, he said more than two thirds his constituency of 23,000 voters live in rural areas that are difficult to access. The CNDP, which is the largest ethnic minority party active in the state fielding 55 candidates, has already reached about 170 of 182 rural villages on their campaign trail.
“There are some places we can’t even access by motorbike. Our party has a lot of youths, so we have an advantage in that we are mainly relying on the young people to travel in this bad weather,” Mhgepi said.
Chin State has a total population of just under half a million across nine townships, and candidates are vying for a total of 39 seats in the state and national legislatures. Of those, nine are in the Lower House of the Union Parliament and, a requisite 12 in the Upper House and 18 in the state assembly. Burma’s two dominant parties—the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD)—will contest for every seat available in Chin State, as will the CNDP.
Because the field is so inundated with major parties, those that are newer, smaller or more obscure face stiff competition and difficulty with brand recognition, particularly as it is hard for them to travel. Even members of the CNDP, which is canvassing the whole state and is already well-known among Chin communities, said its giant competitors are proving to be formidable.
“The mainland parties, the Bamar parties, have been distributing rescue items [provided] by other donors while using their party names during the campaign,” Mhgepi said, which confuses voters and leads them to believe that the party has already done something for their benefit.
We have a basic need for infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications, water and electricity—the mainland has that already. But whether we win or not, this is what we should be doing for the Chin public.”
The Chin Progressive Party (CPP) is relatively new but has quickly become one of the state’s major political forces. Formed in 2010, the CPP won 12 seats in the state and national parliaments that year. One of the party’s more well-known candidates, Cheery Zahau, said that despite the CPP’s growing popularity its candidates now face tough competition from the NLD, which sat out the 2010 poll. The party is relying on a platform of proven experience, providing infrastructure and meeting basic needs of marginalized communities. Amid the rise of other parties in the small but sturdy CPP heartland, Zahau said the party will continue working toward those goals regardless of who ultimately lands seats in the legislature.
“We have a basic need for infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications, water and electricity—the mainland has that already. But whether we win or not, this is what we should be doing for the Chin public,” she said, emphasizing the urgent need for new road construction to enable trade between isolated communities and beyond. The state’s economy is largely agrarian, with a climate conducive to growing oranges, avocados, apples, coffee and other crops, but much of it cannot be efficiently exported. As Zahau lamented, “because we are disconnected, they just rot here.”
As if they weren’t already swimming against the tide, another challenge facing smaller parties is vote-splitting. Despite a state-wide pact that ethnic parties would not compete against each other in certain constituencies, a number of them seem to have gone rogue.
Ten Chin parties convened in July to discuss the upcoming vote, and all involved agreed to a system of preference and abstention to ensure more ethnic representation. The coalition selected 12 priority candidates and two top candidates for each party, vowing not to compete against each other for the same seats. Several parties, notably the CNDP, broke the pact outright. With little other recourse, six parties penned a statement in late September condemning the CNDP for violating the agreement.
The Asho Chin National Party (ACNP) was among the disillusioned coalition members. General secretary Salai Aung Min Hlaing said that the party hasn’t suffered as much because it campaigns primarily in Magwe Division, where its main competitors are the USDP, the NLD and the National Unity Party (NUP). He said the party’s prerogative is to limit its scope and campaign hardest for seats they are confident of winning, claiming that “we have support from the public” in the ACNP’s eight contested constituencies.
Other small parties have taken a similar tack, zeroing in on very localized electoral blocs where they know the needs of the community. The Khumi—also spelled Khami—National Party (KNP), for instance, is seeking only five seats, all in Paletwa Township. As a local, central committee member Hway Nan said he and his colleagues have an edge despite the difficulties caused by lack of roads in the far-flung township. According to Hway Nan, “transportation is always difficult here, so it doesn’t make much difference for us.”
The party’s key issues are related to development, and bringing Paletwa town up to scratch in terms of education, health and social welfare, he said. While they do have some advantages and support from local communities, one of the party’s principal struggles is a lack of voter awareness on a very basic level. Following public rallies and speeches, Hway Nan said, party members often offer demonstrations on how to vote using a ballot stamp.
Anthony Kapkhankaual, a central committee member for the Zomi Congress for Democracy (ZCD), shared a similar sentiment. Elections are novel for Burma’s citizens, as the November poll is expected to be the freest and fairest in decades.
“Another challenge is that people have no idea how to vote,” he said, “so we have to tell them throughout our campaign.”