Aung Thu, a former political prisoner and a labor affairs expert at the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, is one of the 323 independent candidates contesting Burma’s Nov. 8 general elections. He is running for an Upper House seat in Mandalay Division’s eastern constituency, which comprises Mogoke and several other townships.
He was one of several 88 Generation activists who were rejected by the National League for Democracy (NLD) from running as a candidate for the party, a decision that caused a controversy and concern over divisions among Burma’s pro-democratic forces.
Aung Thu was a student activist who took part in the 1988 democratic uprising, a role for which he was imprisoned by the then-military government from 1989 to 1995. He received a 65-year prison sentence for his involvement in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, but was released under a presidential amnesty in 2012.
Born in 1968 in Mandalay, Aung Thu was raised by a mother who was a headmistress and a father who was the chief of the Mandalay Police Academy, until he quit out of dislike for the military government. His father, Bo Aung, then became a lawyer and was a NLD central executive committee member during the party’s founding in 1988. He was later imprisoned for his political activities.
Aung Thu spoke to Myanmar Now reporter Ei Cherry Aung about his candidacy and his expectations about the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party’s election strategy.
Why did you make the decision to contest in the upcoming elections as an independent candidate?
I have several reasons for doing so. After the NLD declined to accept some members from the 88 Generation and Open Society as candidates for the elections, there were some arguments about this. Some said the 88 student activists should found another political party, while others urged them to support the NLD. In the end, they decided to support the NLD in the upcoming election and to found a new party after the elections…
My idea is that it is better to run independently in the upcoming elections rather than to support other democratic forces. And if the 88 Generation activists set up another party, they should also invite their former colleagues.
Which constituencies will you contest?
Pyin Oo Lwin, Mattaya, Singu, Thabeikkyin and Mogoke [four townships in Mandalay Region that comprise one Upper House constituency].
What will be your campaign promises?
Regional development and promotion of education for local people.
How do you financially support your campaign?
Civil society organizations (in Mogoke Township) will help me find the funds. I am now struggling with this issue. The 88 Generation Peace and Open Society will not help with money.
Why did you apply for a candidacy with the NLD?
I did not apply for it myself. Instead, local residents and civil society organizations from Mogoke Township recommended me as a candidate to the NLD. But I was surprised when the NLD denied our proposal—I felt shocked. But I could control myself soon and find the best alternative. In politics, a response plan depends on the emerging situation. So then, I decided to contest for an Upper House seat in Mogoke Township.
Do you think the upcoming elections will be fair?
No country could hold a 100 percent fair election; during elections you cannot avoid certain disputes. I assume the government has made plans to manage them. The government [party] will try to win in the constituencies that they need to control militarily or economically. We can expect it. Former senior military officers [who joined the USDP] will contest in these areas as a first priority.
Secondly, the cronies who are gaining business opportunities from military officers will run in other important constituencies. Thirdly, the government would try to keep direct control of border areas that are militarily important, and areas where they have firmly set up their businesses. While the government will try to win in these areas, they could share other constituencies to NLD and other ethnic parties. The government is possibly expecting this result.
No election is totally fair in any country in the world. As the international community have understood that the upcoming elections will be supported by the military-linked government, they—as well as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—would not expect the November 8 election to be 100 percent free and fair. But the government will avoid plans that could damage its image.
What is your opinion on the surge of labor disputes under this government?
I have noticed a rise in demands for salary increases and labor rights. The first matter could be settled after discussions between workers and employers; the employers dare not discuss the second issue as they fear labor unions will pose problems for them.
The workers have demanded an 8-hour working day, instead of 10 hours like in the past. I have been involved in settling these problems and I think the disputes between the employers and laborers are complicated.
While laborers are demanding a minimum daily wage of 4,000 kyats [US$3.35], employers said they could not do so citing other high production costs, such as renting land and buying fuel for generators because they do not regularly get power supply. They said if they receive regular electricity from the national grid they could save 15 million to 20 million kyats [$12,500 to $18,500] per month. This is one reason they say they cannot give workers the salary they demand. So, economic policy and land management policy of the government would influence labor disputes.
However, the minimum wage of 4,000 kyats is not enough for families to provide for a living and cover education costs [for their children]. Education is the only option for them to liberate themselves from their poor living standard. When they do not get enough income they turn to gambling in lotteries, which leads them back into the vicious circle of poverty, resulting in a lack of rule of law in the country.