Having struggled for weeks to reach Burma’s remote Coco Islands, candidates for the National League for Democracy (NLD) have arrived to the constituency only to find their ability to campaign severely curtailed, with one of the party’s parliamentary hopefuls claiming about 80 percent of voters are out of reach.
The NLD’s Lower House candidate Win Min and two of his colleagues arrived to the islands on Thursday morning, after departing on a boat from Rangoon on Tuesday following weeks of setback and delays to their departure.
Win Min said the NLD candidates hit the ground running and began reaching out to voters the same day they arrived, but quickly ran into a problem.
“We began canvassing in the afternoon, but we were greeted with new signboards that say: ‘Off-Limits Site, No Trespassing,’ of the military,” he told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
Win Min said the candidates had sent a letter on Saturday to the township election subcommission seeking an explanation for the restricted access, and received a reply the following day.
“On Oct. 25, the township electoral body replied to our query, [saying] that canvassing would not be allowed [in these areas] due to military security,” he said.
With about 1,500 eligible voters on the Coco Islands, the Lower House candidate said his campaign team had only been able to speak to about 300 local residents in areas not designated as off limits.
The islands’ population is largely made up of military personnel, their families and civil servants.
Win Min said he would ask local authorities and the township electoral subcommission to cooperate with the candidates to allow them to campaign in civil servants’ quarters this week.
Out of about 3,000 acres of settled land in the Coco Islands, some 2,500 acres are controlled by the military, according to Win Min, who said voter unease was widespread as a result.
“We have seen the public’s fear to express their interest in politics or talk to the candidates during our campaigning, which we only have 14 days to do,” Win Min said.
Mindful of this, the NLD candidate said the party was dialing back its canvassing and focusing on voter education rather than partisan electioneering.
“We can see clearly that they are in fear, so we simply show them how to vote and tell them to vote for the party they prefer.”
On Coco Islands, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition NLD are contesting all four seats up for grabs, comprising one in each of the national legislature’s Upper and Lower houses, and two seats in the Rangoon Division parliament. The New National Democracy Party has also fielded a candidate, Nay Win Than, for one of the regional seats.
Nay Win Than joined the three NLD candidates on their journey by boat last week, but he has since returned to Rangoon.
The NLD has alleged that the USDP’s candidates have used party ties to the military to facilitate access to the islands while the Rangoon regional government denied multiple attempts from Win Min and his colleagues to travel to the constituency since the election’s official campaign period began on Sept. 8.
Rangoon regional legislature candidates Kyaw Thu and Win Ko Ko Win joined Win Min in traveling to the Coco Islands, and the three men along with 10 other NLD members helping organize their campaigns do not intend to return to mainland Burma until after the Nov. 8 general election. The party’s Upper House candidate Kyaw Htwe opted to stay behind to campaign in the other five townships that comprise his constituency.
The USDP slate of candidates for the islands includes Tin Win and Aung Naing for the Rangoon regional legislature seats, and Win Min will face off against the recently retired commander-in-chief of the Burma Navy, Thet Swe, who is the ruling party’s Lower House hopeful. Its Upper House candidate is business magnate Khin Shwe, chairman of Zay Kabar Company.
The Coco Islands are located about 140 miles southwest of the Irrawaddy Delta in the Indian Ocean.