MOULMEIN, Mon State — In 1990, the Mon National Party (MNP)’s original iteration, the Mon National Democratic Front, won five seats in a general election that was subsequently annulled by Burma’s then military rulers.
Twenty-five years later, the party appears destined not to exceed those modest electoral returns in the face of a nationwide blitz by Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Following Sunday’s poll, the MNP has confirmed wins in three Mon State races—one state and one Upper House seat in Ye Township, and another state seat in Mudon Township (Mudon-2). It is also hopeful of claiming an ethnic affairs ministerial seat in Karen State, with results yet to be confirmed.
Nai Ngwe Thein, the MNP’s 94-year-old chairman, said the party garnered much of the vote in predominately ethnic Mon villages but was outgunned in the towns by the NLD.
“We will continue what we have started,” he said of the party’s role in the next Parliament, although he was dubious about what could be achieved at the national level under an NLD-led government.
“We will have to see the situation after a new government has formed. We have no cooperation with the NLD [who] have said not to vote for smaller parties that can’t form a government. I don’t think they can rule the country smoothly,” he said, citing the impediments enshrined in the 2008 Constitution, which affords significant political power to Burma’s armed forces.
Nai Layah Pop Htaw, a Moulmein-based MNP official, said after visiting around 50 polling stations in the Mon State capital on Sunday, he determined that many ethnic Mon were absent from voter lists or did not vote on election day.
Nai San Hlaing, a central committee member of the MNP, also cited ethnic Mon absentees on voter lists as impacting the party’s fortunes. In Kamawet in Mudon Township, the party claimed that around 3,000 supporters were unable to vote as they were not enumerated.
The issue of disenfranchisement was a concern for the party weeks before polling day when the Karen State election subcommission confirmed residents of 33 villages in four village tracts in Karen State’s Kyainseikgyi Township would not be able to cast ballots as the area lay beyond centralized government control. The MNP claimed the 20,000-strong population in the villages was more than 80 percent ethnic Mon.
Overall, in southeastern Burma, voting was canceled in 94 village tracts across Karen State and in one village tract in Mon State’s Bilin Township.
Mon Versus Mon
A factor in Sunday’s election that MNP officials were less willing to cite was the issue of vote-splitting.
In many cases, the party went head-to-head with the All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMDP), the other major ethnic Mon party that won 16 seats in the 2010 general election—a poll boycotted by the MNP and the NLD.
The MNP fielded more than 50 candidates across Mon, Karen and Tenasserim constituencies, compared with around 35 put forward by the AMDP. A smaller ethnic party, the Woman’s Party (Mon), also contested in a handful of constituencies.
However, Nai Ngwe Thein rejected the assertion that the Mon vote was split, maintaining the MNP was the more popular party and that they would “never be able to merge.”
As the reincarnation of the Mon National Democratic Front—which the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) outlawed in 1992, imprisoning some of its members, including Nai Ngwe Thein—the MNP has cultivated a more enduring reputation as an independent, pro-democracy party.
According to the Transnational Institute, in a September briefing, “Ethnic Politics and the 2015 Elections in Myanmar,” the MNP is perceived as more staunchly anti-establishment than the AMDP, benefitting “in nationalist terms from its long years of perseverance and boycott.”
The MNP has sought to distinguish itself from the AMDP in one major respect, by calling for the abolition of the military-drafted Constitution. The latter party, in contrast, favors pushing for amendments.
Some MNP officials have been quoted as citing the November election as a referendum on which party should represent the Mon political cause. But both major parties’ disappointing returns in races across the state—where, according to provisional results, the NLD won 40 of 45 contested seats—may provoke even deeper soul-searching.
Mon leaders should take serious lessons from the election results, said incumbent AMDP lawmaker Aung Naing Oo, who was the only member of his party to claim a parliamentary seat.
“Although the Mon public and monks have told [local leaders] to set aside their selfishness, pride and personal attachments, they didn’t let it go,” he said. “There are three Mon parties; that split the votes.”
While emphasizing that his party needed to be reformed in order to win back the public’s support, Aung Naing Oo was philosophical on what the Mon parties could have mustered against the might of the NLD.
“The whole country wants change. The ones who can bring such change are big parties: the NLD.”
David Hopkins reported from Chiang Mai. Additional reporting by Hay Mar Nom.