Election 2020

Candidates From Four Parties in Myanmar’s Kachin State Face Off in Debate

By Nan Lwin 22 September 2020

YANGON—Candidates from four major parties running in Kachin State on Monday showcased their 2020 election policies on a range of pressing issues including how to achieve lasting peace and ethnic harmony, as well as natural resources governance in the war-torn northern state.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the country’s strongest ethnic armed groups, has clashed frequently with the Myanmar military in areas along the border with China since a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement broke down in 2011. The fighting has forced more than 100,000 civilians to flee their homes as internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Kachin State is rich in natural resources such as jade, gold, amber, timber and rare earth minerals. The state’s jade mines in Hpakant have been held up as an example of the “resource curse,” generating a multibillion-dollar flow of income for a handful of groups, particularly companies run by the military and its cronies, as well as ethnic armed organizations, while creating hardships for the local population due to land grabbing, environmental destruction and social problems.

With November’s general election looming, these issues have never been more pressing, and voters in Kachin State are looking to candidates for answers.

Represented on stage were the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD); Shan State’s most popular party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD); and two popular home-grown Kachin parties, the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) and the Kachin National Congress (KNC). The NLD faces a serious challenge in Kachin State, having failed to bring peace, build a federal union or amend the Constitution during its five years in office. At the urging of local voters, since the last election a number of homegrown parties in Kachin State have merged in order to consolidate their support and boost their chances in November’s election.

Peace and harmony

When the candidates were asked by the debate moderator what steps their parties would take to achieve a long-lasting peace and ethnic harmony, incumbent NLD lawmaker U Win Zaw sought to assure voters that peace and ethnic affairs are still the ruling party’s top priority, pointing to its election manifesto.

SNLD candidate Sai Kyaw Thiha outlined the root causes of the conflict but failed to articulate the party’s policies on the peace process. In Kachin State, the SNLD plans to contest in 11 constituencies in the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament and the state legislature, as well as for Kachin State’s Shan ethnic affairs minister position.

“There should be many platforms in the state to discuss how ethnic groups can live together in harmony. We need to lay a foundation with a vision of how to live together in the future,” Sai Kyaw Thiha said.

KNC candidate Manam Tu Shan outlined three steps his party would take to achieve peace, including pushing the Myanmar military to agree to a unilateral ceasefire first.

The party also believes that peace talks should be led by negotiators selected by local people, and that the peace process will move forward if tripartite stakeholder discussions are held involving political parties, the government and all armed groups, including the Myanmar military.

“I would like to assure [voters] that the KNC is working on these issues,” Tu Shan said.

KSPP candidate Seng Nu Pan said her party—Kachin’s most popular—supports equal opportunity for all ethnic people in Myanmar, and a federal democracy with full autonomy for ethnic groups including self-determination and equal rights. The KSPP, which formed through a merger of six major Kachin parties, expects to win a majority of seats in the state parliament and many seats in both the Lower and Upper houses of the Union Parliament.

“Myanmar is not a country formed by one ethnic group. It was formed by all the ethnic groups. They want collective leadership that includes all ethnic groups. We value collective leadership,” Seng Nu Pan said.

She added that she had high hopes for peace when she voted for the NLD in 2015, but had been disappointed by the ruling camp’s failure to deliver.

“We [the KSPP] will make special efforts to achieve internal peace. We ethnic people don’t want peace brokers. It’s time to work for peace ourselves,” she stressed.

The candidates from the KSPP and SNLD asked U Win Zaw how the NLD would define ethnic rights, and whether the party truly intends to build a federal union. The question has become an urgent one among the country’s ethnic groups after the NLD ruled out forming alliances with ethnic parties for the 2020 election.

Questions have also been raised by ethnic parties about the NLD’s openness to public participation in the peace process, following the arrest of a number of Kachin activists who were advocating for the rights of IDPs. The activists have faced lawsuits and jail time.

Candidates from the SNLD, KNC, NLD and KSPP participate in a debate arranged by the NDEN debate society, the Thabyay education foundation and the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Myitkyina on Monday. / Screenshot from the live broadcast

Addressing these concerns, Seng Nu Pan said, “There are people who faced lawsuits for [taking part in] movements for peace in Kachin State. Does the ruling party really want peace?”

Sai Kyaw Thiha also questioned NLD leaders’ recent assertion that while ethnic people must be involved in building democracy and a federal union, they need to vote for the NLD if they are to secure their full ethnic rights. “If the NLD can guarantee our ethnic rights, what opportunities will they bring?” he asked.

“How should ethnic groups participate? Do they have to represent [only] their own states? Do we need to be loyalists of the NLD?” he added.

U Win Zaw said the NLD did not ally with ethnic parties because it decided to contest in all the constituencies across the country. But many ethnic people are nonetheless involved in the political process as candidates for the 2020 election, he pointed out.

“Elections are about politics. That’s why we said we have not allied [with ethnic parties]. “But, since our party’s main task is to establish a democratic federal union, we believe that we must be able to build a union with the participation of the ethnic people,” he said.

U Win Zaw did not clearly answer the question regarding what kind of ethnic rights the NLD can guarantee under its administration, or address the other candidates’ criticisms of the peace process.

Natural resources

When the candidates were asked how their parties would reduce the country’s dependence on natural resources and create sustainable businesses, U Win Zaw did not offer any specific plans for creating sustainable businesses or ending the over-exploitation of the environment, opting instead to simply read out eight points from the economic section of the NLD’s 2020 election manifesto. The section includes goals such as creating an innovative market economy, boosting the role of small and medium-sized enterprises and promoting responsible and quality investment, among others.

He said environmental destruction was the result of the lack of a proper system to deal with the problem, and the lack of a clear and precise focus on ethnic and local issues, adding that the government had formulated the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) in line with its 12 economic policies to conserve the environment in the ethnic states.

In terms of economic policies, the SNLD and KNC candidates both said their parties want to reduce the influence China wields through its trade and investment.

Sai Kyaw Thiha said it was necessary to lessen Myanmar’s dependence on China, as the latter’s unstable policies on border trade often left traders and farmers frustrated and vulnerable to losses. He said a government-to-government agreement that protected businesses from losses due to policy changes was needed.

On the natural resources issue, the SNLD’s policy platform states that residents of the state are the original owners of the land and that the sovereign power over state land rests with them.

“Most of the mega investments that could harm the environment come from outside of the state, not from people in the state,” Sai Kyaw Thiha said

“Our values come from the state where our ancestors lived. It is understood from the heart that future generations will continue to live here. So if land management is put into the hands of the people of the state, the impacts on the environment will automatically be controlled,” he said.

Tu Shan said, “The KNC won’t apply a pro-China policy,” adding that the party will ensure that other economic powers like Japan, some ASEAN countries and European countries would get an equal chance to take part in a fair and competitive investment environment.

“We have policies to achieve better results without compromising the public interest, without compromising the environment,” Tu Shan said, adding that the KNC would also help to stabilize the dollar exchange rate, promote value added for local agricultural products and boost the small and medium-sized business sector as a way to upgrade commodities without exploiting natural resources.

Seng Nu Pan said the KSSP had a policy of promoting development based on human resources and professionalism without relying on natural resources, while taking advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by Kachin’s geographic location between China and India.

“We can do a lot of ecotourism by doing assessments to minimize environmental damage. We already have a policy to create employment opportunities based on agriculture and the livestock industry,” she said.

She said the KSPP would create zero-interest loan programs for young entrepreneurs and establish job centers for youth seeking work in tourism and related businesses.

NLD lawmaker U Win Zaw asked the KNC and KSPP candidates for more details on the plan to stabilize the foreign exchange market, and whether the loan program for young entrepreneurs would cover the whole country. Neither was able to clarify the strategies, however.

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