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 and notable regional contenders to find out how they plan to contest, which issues they will emphasize and what challenges they face in this crucial election year.
The Tai-Leng Nationalities Development Party (TNDP), officially registered in May 2012, is the second largest ethnic political party in Kachin State after the Kachin State Democracy Party. The party will contest 54 seats across Union and regional parliaments—11 in the Lower House, 12 in the Upper House and 31 across Kachin State and Sagaing Division legislatures. In this interview, The Irrawaddy speaks with Sai Htay Aung, chair of the TNDP, about the party’s aspirations for the November poll.
How prepared is the party for the Nov. 8 poll given you only registered as a political party fairly recently?
We have helped develop the capacity of our candidates since the party’s formation three years ago. We believe in our candidates.
How many party members does the TNDP have?
We have over 38,000 members.
What are the party’s aims and key policies ahead of the election?
[We stand on] principles of peace, ethnic equality and autonomy. We work not only for our sole ethnic group, but also for other ethnicities. We are focused on equality and human rights, despite our party name only referring to one ethnicity. We are also supported by other ethnicities in the region. So this is encouraging for us. We [the Shan Ni also known as Tai-Leng or Red Shan] have a population of over 2 million in Kachin State and Sagaing Division.
What are the main needs of ethnic Shan Ni in Kachin State and Sagaing Division?
There are many needs for our people. Our people lack political knowledge, which leads to fear. We are being told that changes can only be brought by the big parties. [Our people] don’t understand democracy; we have to explain these issues. We have to explain that all change starts from one’s own effort.
Are locals aware of voting procedures now the election is less than a month away?
We have to explain how to vote. They are not familiar with the stamping [process] [Editor’s note: Voters in November will use a stamp to mark their choice on the ballot]. We tell them how important a ballot is in the democratic system and we have to encourage them to vote. We printed out sample ballots and let them practice how to vote with the stamp. We explained what was valid and to avoid stamping twice on the same role.
Do you expect to perform strongly in local races in Kachin State, with your party contesting 20 of 38 elected seats?
We expect to form part of the state level government. If our party does not win all [contested seats], we aim to form an alliance government for the state with other ethnic politicians. Kachin State was ruled for many years by Kachin, then, in the era of military dictatorship, the Burmese came and ruled over us. We want a state government led by the state’s people. We have talked [about an alliance] with other ethnic parties, but I cannot reveal yet which parties [would be involved].
Which party is best placed at the Union level?
If you look at the current political landscape, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent campaign trips, it is more likely that the NLD [National League for Democracy] will win. Only the ruling USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party] can rival the opposition NLD. During her campaign trip [to Kachin State], Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited ethnic Shan Ni controlled areas trying to win votes, even in villages. She urged residents to vote for the NLD as her party representatives include ethnic politicians. It is the same as what army-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said recently—that many of his soldiers were also ethnic representatives. Daw Suu’s trip impacted our campaign a lot. But we are not depressed. Our ethnic people know that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burman.
There are two Shan Ni parties [the other being the Shan Ni and Northern Shan Ethnics Solidarity Party] contesting in Kachin State and Sagaing Division. Are you competing for the same constituencies?
They are contesting the same constituencies we are. It’s like a football match, but the contest needs to be clean.
What are the challenges for you as an ethnic party competing against powerful parties like the USDP and NLD?
The public’s support is key here. And the parties need to be honest. There are many challenges but as we are colleagues, it is not right to reveal it. We are patient.
Can you comment on your spending for the election?
Our funding comes from donations from our people, so we cannot use a lot. We promised to our candidates that we would help them by paying 300,000 kyat for campaigning, but we could not pay them yet.
Are you participating in any election monitoring activities?
We will have our representatives in almost every polling station where we contest. We have told our members to have two observers in each township, and to have representatives at polling stations in nine townships where we are contesting in Kachin State. I don’t know how many polling stations there are in all of Kachin State but there are 98 in Mohnyin alone. We are told that advance votes will start to be collected two days before Election Day. There are not many community election observation groups but there are some Kachin civil society groups working on election observation in their own areas.