With more than 90 political parties expected to compete in Burma’s general election on Nov. 8, The Irrawaddy is reaching out to the leadership of the major parties to find out how they plan to contest, which issues they will emphasize and what challenges they face in this crucial election year. The All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMDP) is one of two major ethnic Mon parties contesting this year’s polls, and plans to field candidates in 35 races in Mon and Karen states, and Tenasserim Division.
In this interview, the general secretary-1 of the AMDP, Naing San Tin, discusses prospects for strengthening ethnic minorities’ hand in Parliament, doubts about the fairness of the upcoming vote, and his party’s standing vis-à-vis southeastern Burma’s other Mon ethnic parties.
What preparations has your party made for the upcoming election?
We have formed electoral victory-ensuring committees township-wise and village-wise. We have asked all party members and committees to correct voter lists if there are any errors. It is important that [eligible] voters are included in the voter lists. We’ve prepared songs to urge [constituents to vote for us], posters and vehicles for campaigning in respective townships.
Why should people vote for your party?
It is said that there are three to four Mon ethnic parties, and big parties will also field ethnic Mon candidates in constituencies in Mon State. Over the past five years, ethnic [minority] lawmakers, including Mon lawmakers from other Mon parties, have demanded ethnic rights but got nothing out of it.
Only ethnic parties—whether they be Shan or Karen or whatever—demand ethnic rights, and therefore ethnic parties that have been formed for the concerned ethnic regions and ethnic groups should be favored. Again, only representatives from these ethnic parties demand equality for the ethnicities. It is important that people do not make a wrong decision. Mon people need to know that we are working for them. Therefore, we should be voted for.
Do you think the election will be free and fair?
Based on my experience from the 1990 and 2010 general elections, and the 2012 by-election, it won’t be. As in any country, the establishment will employ some method to retain power. They have the power and authority to do so. But I think it will be fairer and more independent than the 2010 election because of the election monitoring groups.
What are your thoughts on the conduct of the Union Election Commission [UEC]?
We’ll have to wait and see its actions. Its credibility is in question because it can’t even compile accurate voter lists. We have asked political parties to work together to ensure the accuracy of voter lists because usually only a clerk [of election subcommissions] compiles voter lists in villages. So, there are going to be errors.
In the voter lists for the 2010 election, dead people were included. Voters were not urged to check the voter lists, and the dead people were not struck from the list. Voter lists were not released openly in the 2010 election. Even now, voter lists are not displayed in some villages, and some [administration] offices have even been closed [during what was supposed to be a public display of the lists], and therefore voters couldn’t check them.
What, if any, are the biggest failings of President Thein Sein’s administration and the Parliament?
Because the Union Parliament has an absolute mandate on amending the existing laws, we have some difficulty with our functions in the Mon State parliament. We don’t know whether or not a law we have enacted is against the existing laws. Sometimes, it is really difficult. [The central government] has not devolved a concrete degree of power to us. There is no clear power-sharing. So, efforts have not succeeded as expected. State and divisional parliaments do not have power. They have to submit proposals to the president. It seems that the president has influence over divisional and state parliaments.
Constitutional change is the key [to solving these problems]. The [next] Union Parliament should work to change the Constitution. This is the first priority.
Is there any particular constitutional provision that you want to change?
We want to change a lot. Mainly we want to get greater power for state governments, equality and ethnic rights, and decentralization. Some [division/state] ministers are nominal; they are just supervisory-level and don’t have any decision-making power.
Do you think either of the country’s two main parties, the USDP [ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party] or NLD [opposition National League for Democracy], will win big this November? Would you consider joining a coalition with either of them?
No party has so far made us a coalition offer. We are a member of the 23-member Nationalities Brotherhood Federation [NBF]. Regarding the election results, we’ll know the answer only after the election. I can’t guess who will win a majority on a national scale, but in Mon State, it will be a tightly contested race.
We would consider joining with a party, if any, that will prioritize equality and ethnic rights.
What will the post-2015 government look like, in your view?
No big parties will win a landslide. There will be a coalition government. It is unlikely that ethnicities [ethnic minority parties] will win a majority. In previous elections, ethnicities have usually won around 15 percent [of votes]. But ethnic voices will be louder [in the post-2015 political environment].
How long do you think the military will continue to play a role in the country’s politics?
In our country, the military has taken the lead role since independence. It depends on the goodwill of the military. I think the military will release its grip on power around 2030, when it feels safe.
Since winning seats in Parliament, on which issues has your party been actively engaged?
We have strived for the development of Mon literature and culture, and took measures for excavation of Suvarnabhumi [an ancient kingdom claimed by the Mon people, among others], and teaching of the Mon language at the primary level in government schools. We also worked for infrastructural development, such as building bridges, improving road conditions and supplying electricity.
We’ll continue to work for rural development, and we’ll submit a proposal to Parliament on resource-sharing, to make sure Mon State gets its fair share of its resources.
How are you budgeting for the election?
It depends on the candidates—how they will campaign, whether they will use cars or not in campaigning. Our party is poor. We can’t afford to spend 3 million kyats [US$2,345] to 10 million kyats for a candidate [the maximum amount allowable] like other parties.
We estimate to spend between 1.5 and 2 million kyats per candidate. Party headquarters will provide as much as it can. Candidates have to pay expenses out of their own budget.
Why haven’t the two major Mon parties [the other being the Mon National Party, or MNP] been able to merge?
It is difficult to say. We should not talk about it here.
Do you think your party will be able to compete with the Mon National Party?
We have been in existence since 2010. We have party members in every village and township [in Mon State] and the number remains unchanged [since the MNP registered as a political party in 2012]. We opened offices as we mobilized support in villages and we have formed 15-member committees in every village.
How will you distinguish your campaign from that of the MNP?
We don’t need to campaign differently. We have made clear our party’s activities and policies. It is important that people use their brains when they cast their vote. We will only ask people to think and vote.
Do people get the two big Mon parties confused?
People understand now. We were established first, then another party emerged and people got a little confused. People understood later on.
[Editor’s note: While the AMDP was established in 2010 and the MNP officially registered in 2012, most of the MNP leadership were formerly members of the Mon National Democratic Front, which contested Burma’s 1990 election.]
What are the differences between the two parties in policy terms?
We have the same goal. We are on the same democratic path. The only difference is in our policies. We want to change the Constitution and they say they would write a new one. That is the big difference.
The Mon National Party is not a member of the NBF. We are largely different in our activities. It is difficult to say.
What are your thoughts on the Mon Woman’s Party?
I view them as a women’s organization, which will serve the interests of women. We have helped them as much as we can at their request, but it is a little difficult to cooperate with them. They are contesting in the same constituencies as us, so that is not cooperation. In a democracy, we are not supposed to discourage them [from contesting]. But anyway, votes will not be split that much. They will contest only four seats, and largely for the Upper House and Lower House.
Are you concerned that the Mon National Party is fielding more candidates this year than your party?
No, I’m not. We are not contesting at all in constituencies that we are very unlikely to win. I think we will secure a total victory because we will contest in constituencies in which we are likely to win, places like Paung, Chaungzon, Kyaikmayaw, Mudon, Thanbyuzayat and Ye in Mon State; Yebyu and Pulaw in Tenasserim Division; and Kawkareik and Kyainseikgyi in Karen State.