RANGOON — With Burma’s general election putting an unprecedented cast of parliamentary hopefuls before voters on Nov. 8, some parties including the country’s main opposition have enlisted young guns to carry their banners in the historic poll, hoping new blood will help propel them to victory.
One example: Thu Ryain Shwe, who was just 1 year old the last time Burma went to the polls for a free and fair vote. In November, the 26-year-old will face off against 61-year-old Vice President Nyan Tun and at least four other candidates in one of more than 1,100 general election contests that could inject hundreds of fresh faces into the country’s political arena.
Though election laws setting minimum age requirements assure that no one under the age of 25 will be contesting the poll, several political parties told The Irrawaddy that they had made an effort to recruit qualified young people to bring fresh energy to their campaigns.
Under Burma’s election laws, candidates for the Lower House of the Union Parliament and regional legislatures must be at least 25 years old, while candidates for the Upper House must have no less than 30 years under their belt.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, said that among the 1,138 candidates nominated by the party, just over 50 percent are under the age of 50, breaking down to 12 percent under 35 years of age, 40 percent between 35 and 50, and 48 percent aged 50 or older.
NLD spokesperson Win Myint said the party had received positive feedback after the candidates’ biographies began circulating on social media. That response stands in stark contrast to reaction to the party’s initial announcement on candidate selections, which were widely panned for excluding prominent NLD hopefuls and ignoring the recommendations of local party chapters.
Win Myint said the party had selected candidates with a policy of prioritizing women, youths and ethnic minorities, giving preference to members of those three demographics when considering such candidates against other equally qualified NLD hopefuls in its selection process.
‘10 Steps for Every One Step of an Elder’
Founded in 1988, the NLD has been criticized by some for failing to inject new blood into the party’s ageing leadership, with most members of its central committee in their 70s or 80s, including Suu Kyi, who turned 70 in June.
Khun Zaw Zaw, a 35-year-old NLD youth leader from Shan State who will contest an Upper House seat in the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone, said he was pleased to see more young candidates get the nod from the party’s central committee.
Facing several opponents in his constituency who are seasoned politicians, Khun Zaw Zaw said he would redouble his efforts to win voters’ favor.
It’s that kind of can-do attitude that the NLD’s Win Myint hopes will pay dividends in November.
“Elders can only work for one or two terms, even if they are in good health,” he said. “But youths have strength. They only need to combine this with experience and critical thinking. They can move 10 steps for every one step of an elder. So with that strength, they can contribute positively to the country’s development.”
Thu Ryain Shwe, a National Unity Party (NUP) candidate who, at 26, is believed to be the election’s youngest parliamentary aspirant, said the NLD’s effort to “rejuvenate” the party with its 2015 candidate roster would likely pay off down the line.
“As a political party that has a long history, I think they are initiating this step strategically. What most people are concerned about is that there be a new generation [of qualified leaders] to succeed the current leaders for their party. So now, they have started giving a larger space to the youths,” he said.
The young parliamentary hopeful will go up against the vice president and others in Pegu Division’s Zigon Township, and said only about 50 of his NUP’s candidates were aged between 25 and 35, out of more than 750 candidates in total.
He said that though younger generations had strengthened their hand in the country’s political sphere through their candidacies this year, the overall proportion of these voices was still lower than he hoped for.
“In politics, we youths have an advantage, in that we can negotiate with each other even if we are of different opinions and different parties. We can sit at one table and discuss an issue.”
Some lawmakers are [literally] sleeping in the Parliament. If I were in their place, I’d be ashamed of myself.
The National Democratic Force (NDF), comprised of former leading members of the NLD who broke away to form a new party after Suu Kyi decided to boycott Burma’s 2010 election, said the NDF also chose more youth candidates for the coming poll.
“Among our 274 candidates running in the election, 45 percent are youths who are under 35,” said Khin Maung Swe, the party’s chairman.
In addition to the energy that parties hope their fresh-faced candidates can inspire on the campaign trail, the election of a significant contingent of younger lawmakers could go some way toward filling a generational leadership void that has been acknowledged by even President Thein Sein.
In an interview with Nikkei Asian Review last month, the 70-year-old president claimed that he wanted to see a new generation of leaders take the reins, but feared the legacy of 50 years of dictatorship had left the country with few able leaders to succeed him.
Remedying that shortcoming is a priority for 36-year-old ethnic Arakanese candidate Htoot May, who will contest an Upper House seat representing the Arakan National Party (ANP) in Arakan State’s Ann and Ramree townships.
“Without investing in education and creating job opportunities to raise the capacity of the youths, who are the future of the country, we can’t build a country,” she told The Irrawaddy, adding that if more young people were sitting parliamentarians, Burma’s political transition would be faster than the current pace of reforms, which she described as having stagnated.
“Some lawmakers are [literally] sleeping in the Parliament. If I were in their place, I’d be ashamed of myself. In other countries, lawmakers are fighting each other as they debate policy. But in our Parliament, it is photos of them napping in the Parliament that are spreading,” she said.
Burma’s Union Election Commission (UEC) said it had cleared 6,062 candidates from 92 parties and over 300 independents to participate in the coming election. The country’s last general election in 2010 involved 37 parties fielding a total of 3,069 candidates.
The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will field the highest number of candidates at 1,134, followed by the NLD, which saw 1,130 of its members pass UEC scrutiny.
While The Irrawaddy was unable to reach a USDP representative authorized to discuss the age-demographic distribution of its candidates nationwide, the response of a senior member of the party’s Rangoon Division chapter would appear to indicate that the ruling party has put less of an emphasis on recruiting youths.
Tha Win, secretary of the USDP’s Rangoon chapter, said that most of its candidates in the division were “middle-aged or elders.”
“If, say, you consider under 60 to be ‘youth’ and above 60 as old people, the party will have more youth candidates,” he said.
That skewed dichotomy aside—in a country where average life expectancy is about 65 years—the new faces on the campaign trail since official canvassing kicked off on Sept. 8 have been well received by constituents, according to Htoot May. She said her parliamentary bid has received encouragement from voters, some of whom have invited her into their homes to discuss her candidacy and the upcoming poll.
“They hope that with me entering [the race], as a youth and ethnic woman, that I can make real change,” she said.