SOUTH OKKALAPA TOWNSHIP, Rangoon — Lacking the star power of an Aung San Suu Kyi and perhaps having even fallen out of favor within his own party, former Rangoon mayor and ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) lawmaker Aung Thein Linn is literally relying on concrete achievements in his constituency to win over voters.
On the weekend, Aung Thein Linn took his pitch—including a claim to have funded more than 30 new roads out of his own pocket—to residents of South Okkalapa Township, where on Nov. 8 he will recontest for the Lower House seat that he currently holds.
Speaking on the campaign trail, Aung Thein Linn told The Irrawaddy that he had worked hard for his constituency, where he won his parliamentary seat in a 2010 general election that was plagued by reports of voting irregularities, with South Okkalapa particularly hard-hit by accusations of electoral fraud.
Aung Thein Linn, who served as mayor of the commercial capital from 2003 to 2011, said he had built 37 roads with his own money and had also requested budget allocations for additional road construction and the digging of wells.
As a result, he said, property prices are on the rise and multi-story buildings have replaced tents and wooden homes that had been prone to catching fire during Burma’s dry season.
“I will keep working to get better roads and an adequate water supply for my constituency. I think now 90 percent [of the township’s development needs] is completed. And I will make sure there is no need to worry about fires breaking out in my constituency in future, and to raise living standards,” he said.
A former brigadier general, 63-year-old Aung Thein Linn spoke to voters on Saturday as dozens of students looked on, called out of the classroom to greet the candidate as is a common practice at the nation’s schools when high-ranking government officials make public appearances
“He will work for you guys. We guarantee that we will build more asphalt, concrete roads,” his dozens of supporters shouted as they made their way down an admittedly well-paved street in the township’s Ward 12.
Along the way, Aung Thein Linn passed out pamphlets articulating a reformist campaign message: “What is changed should be changed [to ensure] the emergence of a free and fair democratic nation.”
Those changes, he told The Irrawaddy, included amendments to Burma’s controversial, military-drafted Constitution.
“The country has been in a transition period for nearly five years,” he said. “We are transforming to get justice, fairness and equality—what people are requesting. But to achieve that, the mindsets of the key players in the [government’s] three branches—judicial, legislative and executive—need to change fully.”
But even as he drums up support in South Okkalapa, his standing within the party leadership is an open question. Aung Thein Linn is one of up to a dozen former USDP central committee members, thought to be closely allied with the party’s former chairman Shwe Mann, who were purged from the party’s leadership ranks last month. The dramatic Aug. 12 shakeup of the ruling party was ordered by President Thein Sein.
The ouster of Shwe Mann and his allies confirmed months of speculation that a power struggle was playing out within the party. Shwe Mann was seen as increasingly out of step with Thein Sein and a military establishment that is believed to support the president.
In allowing a vote earlier this year on amending provisions of the Constitution that would have reduced the military’s role in politics, and by rejecting about 100 retired military officers who had sought to run on the USDP ticket, the speaker provoked the ire of a military establishment clearly intent on continuing to have outsized influence over Burma’s political affairs.
Asked about the USDP’s prospects for the November vote, Aung Thein Linn made unprompted reference to his removal from the party leadership.
“You should ask the spokespersons of the USDP; I was removed from the CEC [central committee],” he said. “Ask yourself, why did this come about? A person who gets this much public support, why remove him? You can think for yourself. I don’t want to say anything about it.”
Thein Swe, a South Okkalapa resident, is one voter clearly sold by Aung Thein Linn’s development-centric pitch. He said the ex-mayor’s efforts to construct roads and bridges in the township had won his support.
Another man in his early 40s, standing beside Thein Swe and watching Aung Thein Linn’s team as it canvassed the neighborhood, said Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and the USDP were effectively in a two-horse race in South Okkalapa.
“But I will prioritize Aung Thein Linn, who brought us benefits. He gave his own money to put into road construction,” he said.
Four other candidates are competing against Aung Thein Linn: the NLD, National Democratic Force (NDF), Myanmar National Congress and National Development Party (NDP).
Dr. Saw Naing, the NLD’s Lower House candidate for South Okkalapa, said that in the early weeks of the general election’s official campaign season, the party was focusing more on raising voter awareness, including by encouraging eligible voters to check their names on voter lists being displayed publically until Sept. 27.
“We will work for real change,” he told The Irrawaddy. “For my constituency, I would like to promise that in Parliament and also outside, I will boldly speak out on what is right and what is wrong, and I won’t support those cases that would harm the people.”
Daw Sandar, 43, who was standing at an intersection as Aung Thein Linn’s motorcade passed by, said she believed that once the NLD began campaigning in earnest in the township, its electoral advantage would become clear.
“They are the full extent of his men and people [support],” she said, pointing to supporters of Aung Thein Linn who were waiting for the candidate at the end of the road as he greeted voters.
Daw Sandar said if Suu Kyi’s NLD was able to form a government, it too would build roads. The difference, she said, was that the party would do so out of its duty to provide services to the public, not as an eventual means of selling itself to voters when the country’s next general election is held in 2020.
“In this current [USDP] government’s term, all of our natural resources have been sold off for their own benefit and the country has become poorer. Only the insane people will vote for them,” she said, shifting her gaze to the street forming a junction with the road that hosted Aung Thein Linn’s procession, where water filled numerous potholes following a recent rain.