Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. The general election is less than three weeks from now. At this point in time, political parties competing in the poll are campaigning intensely. Of the 92 political parties contesting the election, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) are competing vigorously. This week we’ll be discussing which party people are giving their support to on the ground and what the response will be if the election result turns out to disappoint popular expectations. Irrawaddy reporters Ma Nyein Nyein and Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, who have been covering the campaign trail, will join me for the discussion. I’m Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.
Ma Nyein Nyein, you covered Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign trip to Hmawbi and Taikkyi (in Rangoon Division). Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, you have also covered her campaign trip to Kachin State and various other places. How large is the difference in popular support for the USDP and NLD?
Nyein Nyein: People’s support toward the USDP and NLD are distinctly different. People willingly attend the rallies of the NLD either because they want to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or to show their support for NLD. They don’t mind giving their time and energy to show their support or interest in the party. Lots of people gathered in Hmawbi, even though it is a garrison town and there are at least a dozen battalions stationed there.
We heard NLD cadres say continuously through loudspeakers along the road: “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car is coming now, people are requested to welcome her in a disciplined manner.” People welcomed her on the street—Hmawbi is located on the Rangoon-Prome Road at the Htaukkyan exit—they were happy and greeted her. They could only see NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for a few seconds. She had no time to give them a long speech. She could just put her head out of the car roof and waved to the crowd. The crowd could see her for only a few seconds, but they were happy. They didn’t mind waiting so long for that. This shows their support.
KZM: What was the main message of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to the people during the campaign there?
NN: She did not focus only on one topic, but touched upon a wide range of areas. She mainly stressed the importance of participation in the election. In the question and answer session, she talked about what she could do and what she promised to do for the people. She also talked about what she can’t do and she said she couldn’t guarantee she would do certain things.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was made (by authorities) to hold her campaign rally quite far from Hmawbi town. The venue itself was quite far from the town. But then, a large and enthusiastic crowd came to show their support. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted to hold campaign rally in a football pitch beside the Myaung Dagar Industrial Zone. It rained for three or four days in succession there before the rally day and the pitch was covered with mud. But then, people waded through the mud to attend the rally. Most of the attendees were farmers. They came and showed their support and listened to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi intently in silence.
KZM: Ma Nyein Nyein, you also went to Naypyidaw and covered the election campaigns of the USDP and campaign rallies by current ministers. What did you find out?
NN: Last week, I went to Naypyidaw and covered the USDP election campaign. I found that the USDP’s campaign has many advantages. USDP candidates are largely backed up by their party. The USDP provides campaign trucks with musicians for its candidates, which saves them using money from out of their individual campaign expensies. The USDP arranged for its candidates to hold rallies in all eight of Naypyidaws townships along with campaign trucks and musicians. So, they rallied in a convoy of those cars. Mostly, they went to villages. When I was in Naypyidaw, they went to villages in Dekkhinathiri Township. There I saw the supporters of incumbent minister and USDP candidate U Myint Hlaing. But then, I found that the crowd there did not appear as enthusiastic as NLD supporters.
KZM: What is your impression of the USDP and NLD supporters at the rival campaigns in terms of number?
NN: It can’t be compared. People greet NLD candidates in uniform with enthusiasm when NLD campaign trucks come to their areas, even without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The way people show their support for the NLD is different from that of people to the USDP. I did not see many local people attending the USDP’s rally in USDP uniforms. Only USDP members and some others wear party uniforms at the USDP’s campaign rallies. Mostly, people will stay in their houses when the USDP comes, and only once it gets too loud will they get out of their houses and take a short look out of curiosity.
KZM: Many have suggested that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity has declined in places like Kachin and especially Arakan State in recent years. Ma Nan Lwin, you covered her trip to Kachin State. Has her popularity declined as the international community and commentators have suggested or does her popularity remain unchanged?
Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: It can be said that people’s support to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not declined at all. When the government said that it would not allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to hold a rally at Manaw grounds, the stage had to be moved and reassembled elsewhere. People helped reassemble the stage so the job could be finished quickly. There was a huge crowd as usual at her rally. Most of people there have suffered from the fighting there for a long time, and they wanted to hear words of courage from her. But, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did not talk about it specifically. She just talked about voting—
KZM: Weren’t Kachin voters disappointed then?
NLHP: They said they aren’t. They said they would vote for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the coming election.
KZM: So, drawing a conclusion from your reports and our extensive coverage, it can be said the NLD is quite popular. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also gone to Karenni State and Arakan State. Wherever she goes, she attracts huge crowds. Again, because of such support, NLD candidates were attacked in Kachin State. There are reported cases of NLD candidates being harassed in other places. Ma Nan Lwin, what else have you heard about such cases in Kachin and other places?
NLHP: This month in Kachin State, militia leader Zakhung Ting Ying ordered candidates from the NLD not to campaign in his constituency. Then the Union Election Commission said they could campaign, and when the NLD candidates entered the area, they were attacked. Likewise, administrators barred NLD candidates from canvassing support at civil servant quarters in Naypyidaw.
KZM: The NLD is even more popular than it was expected to be. Though 92 parties are contesting the election, it is in fact a competition between the USDP and the NLD. It was like the competition between the National Unity Party (NUP) and the NLD in 1990 election, in which NLD won an overwhelming majority.
The NLD is popular in this competition, but if NLD does not achieve as big a success as expected after the election, what will happen? I guess people are concerned for two things. Firstly, they are concerned that the election will not be free and fair, and that there may be voting irregularities like 2010 election. Secondly, even if the election is free and fair like the 1990 election, or if the opposition party wins the election, will the power be transferred? What will happen if election results do not meet the expectations of voters?
NN: It is a real cause for concern. People are concerned that something will happen if the election results fall short of their expectations. But then, I think they may not rise nor vent their anger like they did before. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is urging repeatedly during her party campaigns to exercise restraint to avoid instability during the election period, not only on election day.
KZM: Ma Nan Lwin, taking a broad look at the ethnic regions, do you see the possibility of voting irregularities there, as many have suggested?
NLHP: Everyone doubts the election will be free and fair. They think there will be voting irregularities. But then, particularly Karen State might be at risk if the election results do not satisfy the expectations of people.
NLHP: In previous elections. In 2012, government offices suffered arson attacks as a result of dissatisfaction with the election results.
KZM: 2012 or 2010?
NLHP: In 2012. The government could not even rebuild those buildings until 2013. There were also reports of casualties. Though Karen ethnic armed groups have signed the ceasefire pact now, there are still splinter groups that are still clashing (with government troops) at present. Therefore, I think it is worrying in those areas.
KZM: Taking a look at Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I’m concerned that the NLD and their supporters are overconfident. The coming election is not an ordinary election, like the 1990 election, because the military has constitutionally reserved itself 25 percent of the seats in the parliament. So, the NLD can contest only 75 percent of the seats. No matter how popular Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are, if the USDP wins 25 percent of the seats, it can elect the president and form the government. I’m afraid the NLD is overconfident.
NN: As an opposition party, it is quite reasonable for the NLD to be confident, because it is contesting as a new party. It is not an established institution like the current government. Most NLD candidates are new faces and young. Anyway, having confidence is an advantage. They have confidence to win the election and have the strong support of the people. This will be called into question if the election results turn out to be against people’s expectations. But, I have noticed one thing: there may be people who support the USDP, but they don’t show their support. So, probably because of this, the USDP has said the election results should be accepted
KZM: President U Thein Sein, Union Election Commission chairman U Tin Aye and Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing have promised that they would not deny the results of the election, as was the case in the 1990 election. I think power will definitely be transferred if these three leaders have promised it, right?
NLHP: I think people will be angry if there is huge gap between their expectations and the election results. It depends on how the ruling party will handle the vote, hand in glove with the existing government. If there are voting irregularities, as people have suspected, and there is huge gap, and if the feelings of people intensify from frustration to anger, I’m afraid Burma’s politics will reverse.
KZM: Ma Nyein Nyein, Ma Nan Lwin, thank you for your contribution. As you two have said, it depends largely on will of the current government, the UEC chairman, and military leaders. We’ll have to wait and see how much the election will be free and fair and how magnanimous the authorities will be.