RANGOON — Irrawaddy Division, one of Burma’s densest administrative regions, could set the stage for a battle of the sexes in the Nov. 8 general election, with a total of 67 women vying for seats in the divisional and national legislatures.
While that makes up for only about 13 percent of the total candidates in the division, which is in keeping with the national average, some of the country’s more well-known and experienced women are gearing up for tough races against powerful competitors in the delta region.
Irrawaddy Division, with a population of roughly 6.1 million, is the second most populous in the country after Rangoon. Its female population numbers 3.1 million, as compared to 3 million males.
About 86 percent of Irrawaddy’s residents are rural, and the division accounts for 12 percent of the population nationwide, making it an important electoral battlefield in Burma’s agricultural heartland.
A total of 72 seats are up for grabs: 54 in the state legislature, and 12 and 26 in the Upper and Lower houses of the Union Parliament, respectively. Of 509 candidates in Irrawaddy, 67 of them are women, an enormous increase since 2010, when only seven women ran.
The parties running the highest number of women in the region are the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Myanmar Farmers Development Party (MFDP), each fielding 14. That accounts for nearly 30 percent of the MFDP’s total female candidates, and about 8 percent of the NLD’s.
The National Unity Party (NUP) and the National Development Party (NDP) have each fielded nine women in Irrawaddy, while the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will run five.
Four of them—Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Myat Myat Ohn Khin, divisional Social Affairs Minister Khin Saw Mu, and lawmakers Khin Khin Si and Khin Than Myint—were elected in 2010. They will be joined by newcomer Nan Ohnmar Mya.
One female independent, Khin Kyi, will contest a seat in the state legislature. According to the division’s election subcommission chairman, Aung Myint, “most of the women are running for the divisional parliament.”
The high concentration of female candidates in the division could mean, ultimately, that many women will be competing against each other. Others will face off against some of the 2015 race’s more formidable challengers, mostly incumbents re-contesting seats for the USDP, which claimed the lion’s share of votes in a 2010 election broadly viewed as fraudulent.
There are a number of races in Irrawaddy to look out for. One is for the Lower House seat in Einme Township, where Ma Thandar, the widow of slain journalist Par Gyi, will be contesting on the NLD ticket. She will face off in her hometown against the USDP’s Htay Win, Khin Win of the NUP, Zaw Min Htun of the MFDP and two ethnic Karen candidates as incumbent Saw James prepares to retire.
Also of interest is Hinthada Township, where Htay Oo, a former general and the new “joint-chairman” of the USDP, will compete against Sandar Aung for the NDP, a new party founded earlier this year by former presidential advisor Nay Zin Latt.
Maubin Township will play host to a race between President’s Office Minister Thein Nyunt and two women—Aye Thidar Kyaw of the NUP and Khin Tint of the Modern People’s Party—for the Lower House.
Further east in Maungmya, divisional finance minister Win Ko will challenge four women—representing the NLD, NUP, MFDP and the Karen People’s Party (KPP)—for what appears to be a highly coveted seat in the divisional parliament.
Women have unique capabilities and greater endurance in some fields.”
Both the USDP and the NLD will contest in every constituency in Irrawaddy Division, presenting stiff competition for women representing smaller parties. The USDP has assigned a number of heavy hitters in Irrawaddy, where the local chapter anticipates a sweeping victory.
“We expect to win at least two-thirds [of seats contested] in Irrawaddy,” divisional USDP chief Thein Aung told The Irrawaddy, “and we have prepared for it.”
Elsewhere in the division, the USDP will put forth central committee members Tin Htut and Soe Naing, former Union ministers Than Htay and Khin Yi, and current sports minister Tint Hsan.
Despite the tough competition and the relative novelty of female participation in Burma’s political sphere, at least one opposition candidate is confident she can break ground with the support of her constituency.
“I am contesting at the request of my town,” NLD member Khin Myo told The Irrawaddy. “Women have unique capabilities and greater endurance in some fields.”
Local residents showed a similar embrace of the new. Thidar, who is from the divisional capital Pathein, told The Irrawaddy that her vote would be based on merit.
“Women have concepts and capabilities that are different from men’s. The increased participation of women in politics will bring greater benefits to women,” she said. “I will take a look at the qualifications of women candidates and I will vote for her if I like her.”
Translated by Thet Ko Ko. Additional reporting contributed by Moe Myint and Feliz Solomon.