RANGOON — In a packed, windowless room, 40 or so candidates preparing to run in Burma’s general election listen in rapt attention as the trainer clicks to the next slide—a picture of a red compact car.
“Your message should be forward-looking, in the same way that the main purpose of the wheels of a car is to move forward,” says the slight, bespectacled woman advising the political hopefuls.
“When the voters hear you speak, they will think, ‘This is the candidate who is going to improve my life.’”
Most of the overwhelmingly male, middle-aged audience are members of the Federal Union Party (FUP) and first-time candidates who have never attended such a training.
They take notes in old-fashioned exercise books, pages yellow with age, as the trainer explains the intricacies of planning and executing an election campaign, from conducting research to connecting with voters.
Candidates started campaigning this week for the historic Nov. 8 election, the first in decades to be contested by all Burma’s main opposition parties, giving a platform to democratic activists who had been shut out of public life under military rule that ended in 2011.
Tin Mar Mar Lwin, a 49-year-old retired primary school teacher from Kyaikto Township in Mon State, is one of 10 female candidates the FUP is fielding and one of a handful of women who attended the three-day crash course.
She has always been active in her community but never thought of entering politics, she said. Then two months ago, the FUP, formed in mid-2013 by former members of 16 ethnic political parties, turned up in her town.
“They asked whether I want to see improvements in my town. They also said the party aims to benefit all ethnic groups in Myanmar, so I decided to join. I was never a member of any political party before,” she added.
Now the political novice is running against seven other candidates in her bid for a seat in the Upper House, including those from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). She grabbed the opportunity to join the training.
During a session on messaging, she volunteered to speak, telling the trainer that the three most pressing issues facing her constituents were drugs, health care and unemployment. She wrote furiously in her notebook as the trainer told her how she could hone her message by using detail and examples.
“When I go back, I’m going to talk about these things,” she said.
Training for Everyone
Concerned that Burma has little experience in holding free elections—a legacy of half a century of military rule—numerous local and international organizations have delivered dozens of election-related training sessions to thousands of candidates, journalists and voters over the past two years, most of them paid for by Western governments and donors.
The course for the FUP candidates, held just days before the campaign season began, was no different.
The local organization that provided the training requested not to be identified, saying it prefers to keep a low profile. However, it told Myanmar Now it has organized around 10 election campaign trainings this year. Each course was attended on average by 70 trainees and funded by international donors.
The US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) runs possibly the largest training program for political parties in Burma, having trained 83 out of 91 registered political parties with funding from the US Embassy, Canadian Embassy and the National Endowment for Democracy.
Since mid-2013, it has organized dozens of training courses for non-governmental organizations and political parties, including more than 30 on election campaigning.
“The role of the parties is to be responsive to citizens and address issues that concern their constituents. I think that’s important for countries anywhere,” Steve Cima, IRI’s country director in Burma, said in a telephone interview.
Sithu Aung Myint, a popular political commentator who regularly speaks at these trainings, said they are needed because the establishment of a multi-party political system in Burma is still in its infancy.
“All of this only really started in 2010 and even then it was born out of the grassroots after much oppression,” he said, referring to elections five years ago that were criticized as neither free nor fair.
“It’s an area that needs a lot of development. Many are learning these things only now.”
Khin Thazin Mint, country coordinator for the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD), agrees. DIPD runs the Myanmar Multiparty Democracy Program, which provides longer-term training to political parties on issues such as financial management and media relations.
“We are just on the road to democracy. … The journey is a long one,” she said.
Nascent Political Scene
The FUP training, which covered Burma’s first-past-the-post electoral system, a look at constitutions around the world and how to deal with the media, provides a glimpse into the country’s nascent multi-party political scene.
Burmese citizens, for years used to political activism in the form of anti-government protests and brutal crackdowns, now face the prospect of expressing their support or disapproval via the ballot box.
Nyunt Aye, 59, is another first-time candidate for the FUP. The landowner from the Irrawaddy Delta was attending the training for a second time.
“I never finished high school but I like to read, and this training is useful because it teaches political knowledge,” he said, spitting a large dollop of betel nut juice into the waste basket below.
Like many FUP candidates Myanmar Now spoke to, Tin Mar Mar Lwin, the teacher from Mon State, said she is optimistic about her chances.
“I have a good track record [in the community] and I have faith in myself. … People know I’m on the side of the truth,” she said.
At the end of the three-day training, she said she plans to put into practice in her election campaign a central part of what she learned about delivering her political message—keep it short and sweet.
“That’s what I’m really taking away from this training—that a representative of the public should be able to explain things clearly and concisely. I only learned that now.”