RANGOON — Few are facing a more exhausting campaign bout than those seeking election as Burma’s ethnic affairs ministers. The coveted posts, which represent large populations of ethnic groups that are minorities in their state or region of residence, by nature require candidates to canvass nearly every constituency as they will stand for people from more than just one or a few townships.
Despite the enormous responsibility of the post and the trying conditions of campaigning across such broad geographic scopes, a number of women are going all in for a chance at the prestigious post, bringing with them an agenda of workers’ rights, education and healthcare reform.
A total of 160 candidates are vying for 29 ethnic ministerial positions spread across all states and regions except for Chin State. Ten percent of those candidates are women, which, while slightly lower than the national tally of 13 percent candidacy, is higher than many anticipated.
Those women are campaigning hard for 11 seats in Kachin, Mon and Shan states, as well as Irrawaddy, Pegu, Rangoon and Sagaing divisions. Of all the candidates—men and women—a wide range of ethnic groups will be represented in the poll including Akha, Arakanese, Burman, Chin, Intha, Karen, Kayan, Lahu, Lisu, Mon, Pa-O, Rawang and Shan.
A number of women candidates are introducing a new spin on what the job of an ethnic minister entails. Many minority communities are largely made up of internal migrants, who moved from one state or region to another for economic reasons. As such, they face circumstances that differ from the majority populations in their places of residence; they are often under-represented in decision-making about labor issues, and many do not have access to education in their mother tongue or about their cultural heritage. Several candidates spoke to those needs directly.
“As women, we have the minds of mothers; we are strong, tolerant and have the courage to initiate change and we never give up helping,” said Khin Saw Wai, who is contesting for the Arakanese ministerial seat in Rangoon, a popular destination for young Arakanese women looking to work in garment factories.
“I want to help improve the lives of young Arakanese migrants, aged between 16 and 22, who work in Rangoon’s industrial zones. They have no life security,” she explained during a recent interview with The Irrawaddy. The 56-year-old, who just entered politics earlier this year, said she would to work to secure higher wages and “create better employment” for the ethnic people in the region.
Khin Saw Wai joined the National League for Democracy (NLD) in June, inspired by a photograph in a local journal of the party’s chairwoman, Aung San Suu Kyi, going door to door in Naypyidaw to check voter lists. She recalled asking herself, “Why would I just sit around and do nothing while the Lady [an affectionate nickname for Suu Kyi] is doing all she can to bring about changes in this country?”
Getting to the vote might be difficult, however. While Khin Saw Wai makes frequent visits to the communities she hopes to represent, she faces the incumbent Zaw Aye Maung, who has built up a broad support base in recent years. Of her popular opponent, Khin Saw Wai acknowledges that he is “ahead of me in almost every aspect,” but she tries to assure voters that she will build on his successes while adding new, progressive policies.
Making matters more difficult, some voters don’t view her as truly ethnic Arakanese. Her mother is fully Arakanese but her father is not, and some people distrust her because she is a member of the NLD as opposed to an ethnic party, such as the Arakan National Party (ANP), the dominant political force in the western state and among its diaspora, which numbers about 60,000 people in Rangoon Division alone.
I left behind all of my business commitments to take part in the changes that the NLD is trying to bring about, because I believe in it.”
The country’s most populous administrative division also has a sizeable Karen population at about 160,000, according to the Union Election Commission (UEC). Seeking the job of Karen ethnic affairs minister for the region is 36-year-old Naw Pan Thin Zar Myo, also a member of the NLD. The Karen minority is Burma’s third largest ethnic group, and is widely believed to be even bigger than the latest statistics show because of Burmanization, which has led many to abandon their mother tongue and identify as Burmese on documents and in the social sphere.
“We ethnic Karens have been losing our identity,” Naw Pan Thin Zar Myo said, lamenting that the group has also suffered because of slow development and poor standards for growth among minority populations. Many ethnic minority people face so many struggles in their daily lives, she said, that they don’t even bother to involve themselves in politics.
A management expert with a background in engineering said she has spent the past few months furiously preparing to take up the role.
“I left behind all of my business commitments to take part in the changes that the NLD is trying to bring about,” she said, “because I believe in it.”
Being on the NLD ticket hasn’t helped much for aspiring ethnic affairs ministers, as many voters feel alienated by the party. Nationwide, candidates for the post represent an array of political parties, many as members of smaller parties formed on the basis of ethnic bonds. Women are contesting as ministers for the Kayin People’s Party and the Tai Leng Nationalities Development Party, among others.
“I have been asked why I am not representing an ethnic party, but I tried to explain to my voters that the NLD is a Union party, not a Burman party,” Naw Pan Thin Zar Myo said. “This has been the NLD’s firm stance on ethnic policy—to be a federal Union—which the NLD has stood for since its formation.”
Saw Wint Khaing, a 68-year-old Pa-O woman, is also on board with the opposition. She hopes to represent her people in Mon State. The Pa-O mostly reside in Mon, Karen and Shan States.
After years working as a teacher, San Wint Khaing was imprisoned in 1989 for leading an educational program after a mass closure of schools following the 1988 popular uprising. She has been a loyal member of the NLD since its formation, focusing her political works on educational access for minorities and malaria prevention.
San Wint Khaing said that if elected, she would continue to prioritize health and schooling.
“I would work to bring about change in the education system, and to make mother-tongue teaching available from the primary education level, in line with the NLD manifesto,” she said.