PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — Irrawaddy Division, the epicenter of Burma’s rice bowl and home to one in eight of the country’s citizens, has a political pedigree stretching back decades. It was the birthplace of both U Nu, the first post-independence leader of Burma, and U Thant, the revered former United Nations secretary-general.
With less than six weeks left until the election, in which the opposition and ethnic parties are tipped to make large gains, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) appears to rate its chances of a strong showing in the largely rural and ethnically Burman division.
A total of nine members from the USDP’s central executive committee will be contesting in Irrawaddy, more than any other region of the country. All except one were born and raised in the division, most have served as Union ministers and many are close to President Thein Sein.
Both the USDP and the National League for Democracy (NLD) will contest all 92 available divisional and Union constituencies in Irrawaddy, followed by the Ne Win-era National Unity Party (NUP) and the Myanmar Farmer’s Development Party, who are fielding 78 and 74 candidates respectively. Unlike other parts of the country, where a plethora of ethnic and opposition parties will battle for a plurality in Burma’s first-past-the-post voting system, political commentators in Irrawaddy Division are predicting a two horse race between the USDP and the NLD.
Not all analysts familiar with the rival campaigns of the country’s two largest parties were willing to a venture who would gain the upper hand on election day, but all agreed that the division will see some of the closest victory margins in the country.
Leading the pack for the ruling party is 65-year-old Htay Oo, who was appointed as USDP co-chairman after the ouster of Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and his allies from the party’s central executive committee in August.
A former Major General, Htay Oo formerly headed the military’s South Western Command in divisional capital Pathein, a position once held by former junta leader Than Shwe. Before the 2010 elections, he served as Minister for Agriculture and divisional chairman of the State Peace and Development Council.
On Nov. 8, Htay Oo will be recontesting the Lower House seat of Hinthada—which he won with over 80 percent of the vote against his NUP rival in 2010—against NLD challenger Khin Maung Yi. Aung Ko Lwin, a member of a Hinthada-based election monitoring body, expects the former general to face a much tougher battle this year.
“U Htay Oo is more popular in Hinthada, while U Khin Maung Yi from NLD is less well known,” he said. “There are more USDP members in urban wards and the NLD outnumbers the USDP in rural areas. So if voters cast vote by only looking at the party and not looking at the candidates, the NLD may win. What I am sure of is it will be a tightly contested race for them.”
Among the other USDP executive committee members competing in Irrawaddy Division are new party secretary Than Tun, a former Deputy Minister for Cooperatives who resigned on the evening of the Shwe Mann purge and who will recontest the Lower House seat of Pathein.
Former Immigration Minister Khin Yi, who resigned at the same time as Than Tun and also assumed a position in the party’s executive committee, will compete for the Upper House seat of Myaungmya. Incumbent Sports Minister Tint Hsan, the owner of construction giant ACE Co., will compete for the Lower House Myaungmya seat, while divisional Finance Minister Win Ko Ko will seek election to the Irrawaddy Parliament from the township.
All three have rallied local support by providing free medical treatment, making cash contributions to villages, and building roads and bridges in the township. Myaungmya-based reporter Thaw Zin Myo said the USDP’s cash splash would make it difficult for the NLD to make inroads into the township.
I’m not worried about the constituencies where USDP top leaders are running. People who want real changes will vote for the NLD.”
“It is difficult to say which party, NLD or USDP, will win in Myaungmya,” he said. “They have a 50-50 chance. U Khin Yi has issued national IDs under the Moe Pwint Project when he was a minister. U Tint Hsan has provided assistance for the township over the years. At the same time, the young candidates from the NLD are well-known and online crowd pullers.”
Both Tint Hsan and Win Ko Ko rallied support for the USDP in almost all of Myaungmya’s villages prior to the commencement of the official election campaign on Sept. 8. The Irrawaddy has learned that the pair contributed between 300,000 and 1.5 million kyats (US$233-1,164) in each village they toured for the provision of solar powered lamps.
Thein Nyunt, a President’s Office minister, USDP executive committee member and chairman of Naypyidaw Council, will contest the Lower House seat of Maubin he won with 80 percent of the vote in 2010, after the NLD unsuccessfully sought his disqualification on citizenship grounds. He is expected to face an uphill battle against the NLD’s Sei Win, who won the seat in the 2012 byelections.
“If the people, departmental staff, and the soldiers can vote freely and if the election is free and fair, NLD will surely win,” said Ko Thura of the Pyo Khin Thit civil society organization in Maubin.
Other members of the executive campaigning in Irrawaddy are former Railways Minister Than Htay and incumbent Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Minister Dr Myat Myat Ohn Khin. The country’s first female minister, Myat Myat Ohn Khin will recontest the Upper House constituency centered on Pyapon and Dedaye townships. Her rival is the NLD’s Thein Swe, who swept the seat in 2012 after she joined the ministry.
Back into the Fray
In the Irrawaddy Division parliament, Chief Minister Thein Aung and nine serving ministers will contest the same seats they won in 2010.
Also a member of the USDP’s executive committee and chair of the party’s divisional office, Thein Aung will be seeking election in the Ingapu No. 1 constituency, which he won unopposed five years earlier.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy, he said the USDP expected to win two-thirds of the division’s 92 seats, acknowledging the party faced a tougher fight than in 2010, where the party won 85 seats in an election widely considered to have been rigged.
“We’ll try to win the election in line with the rules and regulations adopted by the Union Election Commission,” Thein Aung told The Irrawaddy.
The chief minister recently admitted to Myanmar Now that he had worked with Buddhist nationalist leaders from the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known as Ma Ba Tha, to force the closure of several Muslim-owned slaughterhouses in Irrawaddy Division.
Earlier in September, the chief minister met with civil society organizations close to the government including the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Association, Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association and the Red Cross to rally support for the ruling party. He has visited leading business owners in Pathein and urged them to throw their backing behind the USDP, and exempted divisional ministers from their usual duties, allowing them to campaign in far-flung villages.
Against the USDP’s formidable lineup, the NLD will be fielding a number of relatively new faces to the political arena, including a total of 14 female candidates on the party roster. The opposition party is confident of making strong gains in November, citing its clean sweep of the seven divisional seats during the 2012 byelections.
“I’m not worried about the constituencies where USDP top leaders are running,” said Dr Myo Nyunt, the NLD’s Irrawaddy Division chairman. “People who want real changes will vote for the NLD. We trust people.”
Ko Thura of Pyo Khin Thit, who disclosed that he intended to vote for the NLD, said that he did not believe the USDP’s inducements would secure seats for party leaders on election day.
“The USDP does work for regional development,” he said. “But then, what is the point of choosing them if only our region is developed and the rest are not? We want the development of entire nation. And we want a government that can bring changes for the people.”