Election 2020

Karen Ethnic Affairs Minister Candidates in Myanmar’s Yangon Square Off in Online Debate

By Nyein Nyein 24 September 2020

Candidates competing for the post of Karen ethnic affairs minister in Yangon promised to bring equality and better social services to members of the minority residing in the commercial capital, during an online debate on Wednesday. It was the first-ever debate between rival ethnic affairs minister candidates.

Ethnic affairs ministers (EAMs) are the only members of state or regional governments that are elected directly to their positions. All other sub-national cabinet members are appointed by the President.

Three candidates—Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), Naw Ohn Hla from the United Nationalities Democracy Party (UNDP) and Mahn Than Win Oo from the Karen People’s Party (KPP)—participated in the event, which was organized by Karen youth. Campaign activities for the Nov. 8 general election are being conducted under restrictions due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The debate centered on ethnic Karen affairs, with candidates promising more access to jobs as well as promotion of education and literature in the group’s mother tongue.

The wide-ranging talks covered everything from equality, self-determination, peace building and federalism to recognition of Karen freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to commemoration of Karen Martyrs’ Day in memory of legendary leader Saw Ba U Gyi.

The ethnic affairs ministerial post candidates are busier than those running for seats in Parliament. Their constituency is the whole state or region, with their respective ethnic groups scattered over large areas.

The Karen are the second-largest ethnic group in Myanmar. They reside primarily in Karen and Mon states and Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago and Tanintharyi regions.

In Yangon, there were 181,000 ethnic Karen voters and only four parties competing in the last election. This year, seven candidates have registered to run for the post in Yangon. The exact number of 2020 voters has not yet been released by the Union Election Commission.

Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe said having the NLD as the ruling party creates more chances for ethnic affairs representatives to cooperate for the development of each respective ethnic group.

Citing an online survey she conducted in early August about what the Karen in Yangon want, she said, “Our Karen need socioeconomic development, equality, federalism and peace. For that I have started a program to hear more local Karen voices through an online Yangon Karen community. I will continue doing that when I am elected [in November].”

She cited her efforts to help more than a hundred young people in Insein get jobs in the hotel and tourism sectors. She promised similar efforts in the future. Yangon’s Insein Township, where many Karen reside, is currently part of her constituency, as she is the NLD’s Upper House lawmaker representing Yangon’s Constituency 10.

She said many young people who migrated from Ayeyarwady Region to Yangon could not get decent work and are working in low-level jobs such as waiters at teashops. Her focus is on providing training so they can find better employment.

While the NLD candidate cited her record as a lawmaker, the other hopefuls outlined their parties’ policies, stances and general views on the issues.

Naw Ohn Hla, the UNDP candidate, is a former NLD member-cum-political activist and has been active in the equality movement. Vowing to work for entitlement and human rights for Karen, she said she is ready to join hands and stand firm with the Karen, including young people.

Mahn Than Win Oo from the KPP said in Parliament, his party aims to raise its voice for change. He is also a leader working for the development of the Karen language curriculum and Karen history.

But the KPP candidate lashed out against Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe and other Karen nationals for being members of the other “national” parties despite the fact that they are ethnic Karen.

He said they must inevitably conform to those other parties’ agendas, which are not specifically created with the Karen people in mind.

Two of the candidates shared their concerns about whether the 2020 election will be free and fair, saying the ruling NLD has the upper hand while travel restrictions are in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NLD candidate rejected all those claims, saying she faces the same restrictions as other candidates. As a result, she said, she is running an online campaign. She added that as an ethnic MP representing the ruling party, there were no obstacles to her efforts to raise issues in Parliament. She said firmly that her actions are “based on her commitment” to her constituents and highlighted her successes in terms of land rights and forest legislation.

On the issue of peace building, lawmaker Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe focused on building peace within society, fighting against extremism and hate speech. At the same time, ceasefires between ethnic armed groups and the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) are an important part of the peace process on a national level.

“It is not just about ceasing gunfire,” she said. “It is about stopping extremists and hate speech. I will continue working to have more public participation in building peace.”

The candidates also shared their thoughts on federalism and self-determination.

Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe said collective effort on the part of all ethnic groups in the Union is the key to achieving federalism, adding that the Karen cannot do the job alone.

“We Karen are not the minority. We are the second-largest ethnic group. We don’t need special rights, but we need equal rights,” she said, citing the need to eliminate discrimination.

A total of 212 candidates will compete for 29 EAM posts nationwide, except in Chin State, in November.

Under the 2008 Constitution, the EAMs are elected directly as ministers in the state/regional governments. They are the only ministers elected directly by the people.

The EAM positions are created where the minority in the state/region represents 0.1 percent or above of the total population. Their focus is on the development of the ethnic group’s literature and culture.

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