RANGOON — Dozens of villagers waited at a bus stop in western Burma’s Arakan State on Thursday morning for a delivery of solar panels promised by a ruling party candidate during a recent campaign stop, according to sources on the ground. At time of writing, the bus had yet to come.
Locals said that Htwe Hla, a candidate for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) contesting a seat in the state parliament, visited at least five villages in his constituency over the past week, promising donations and urging voters to support him in the Nov. 8 poll. A headman at one of the villages told The Irrawaddy that Htwe Hla did, in fact, make the promise, but the crowd showed up after a rumor spread about the exact date and time of delivery.
“He told us he would give us solar panels and requested that we vote for him,” Aung Wai Htun, a resident of Sa Nae village told The Irrawaddy on Thursday afternoon, around the time villagers expected to see a truck pull up at the Kalawdin village bus station. The local chapter of the USDP confirmed that Htwe Hla had recently been to villages in the area but denied accusations of making campaign promises, saying that the visit was not a campaign stop but a technical assessment.
The alleged promise and the turnout of misguided hopefuls spoke to a pervasive need for power in Arakan State, one of the poorest and least connected parts of Burma. Sa Nae, located near Kyaukphyu, is among a number of villages where locals have become disillusioned by the Shwe Gas Project, one of Burma’s biggest extractive ventures, transferring imported crude and natural gas from the Bay of Bengal to China.
With a population of about 3.1 million people, Arakan State has a long way to go toward development; census data shows that Arakan had the lowest proportion of households with improved sanitation facilities, the least access to improved water sources and only about 12 percent of households lit their homes with electric power as of late March 2014.
We will receive donations, but we will vote for the ANP. As the party slogan says, ‘Love Arakanese, preserve the race and be dutiful’.”
In view of these challenges, the coastal state—which is also grappling with extreme racial and religious tension—has seen a rising number of reports that candidates are making the rounds to dish out donations as election day nears. Several locals said that they would still support the state’s dominant Arakan National Party (ANP) despite promises and cash injections made by other candidates.
“We will receive donations,” Aung Wai Htun said, “but we will vote for the ANP. As the party slogan says, ‘Love Arakanese, preserve the race and be dutiful’.”
Villagers said USDP candidates gave cash offerings in the amount of 1,000 kyat (US$0.78) for some villagers who attended rallies in Aungmyaykone, Swun Nan Prein, Thitkatoe and Yaymyat Gyi villages. Attendees were also promised solar panels and additional support for the wives whose husbands are not alcoholics, they said. One villager claimed that USDP candidates had given them radios.
The allegations are just the most recent in a spate of claims against the military-backed ruling party, which took power after a 2010 election boycotted by the opposition and widely viewed as fraudulent.
Earlier this month, minority parties in eastern Burma’s Karenni State told The Irrawaddy that USDP candidates had come through offering generous donations of cash, rice and satellite dishes.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), followed closely behind on her campaign trail, urging villagers in the state not to be swayed by gifts.
The official campaign period began on Sept. 8, giving parliamentary hopefuls two months to rally support with a spending limit of 10 million kyats (US$7,800). An election Code of Conduct explicitly prohibits bribery, though the laws are vague about what qualifies as a violation.
Win Kyi, a member of the Union Election Commission (UEC), told The Irrawaddy that an adjudication team has been formed and will investigate claims after the election has concluded. The resolution team, he said, will examine claims of irregularity and audit candidates’ campaign expenditures to verify that they have not exceeded the spending limit.