Election 2020

Myanmar Election Campaign Muted by COVID-19

By The Irrawaddy 9 September 2020

Yangon — The campaign for the Nov. 8 general election started on Tuesday in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some parties hoisted their flags, erected candidate hoardings and began door-to-door campaigning in some townships.

Amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, the Union Election Commission (UEC) issued guidelines on campaign gatherings.

Parties are barred from campaigning in coronavirus hotspots where stay-at-home orders are in effect. The rules also restrict the numbers at campaign events to 50 and require people to stay six feet apart.

Amid those challenges, the National League for Democracy (NLD), driven by its chairwoman Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has started its campaign on a wide scale.

In some places, due to strong public support, attendees at NLD’s rallies exceeded the limits.

The main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is widely regarded as the military’s proxy, did not make any significant move on Sept. 8.

The People’s Party introduces its candidates in Yangon on Sept. 8, 2020. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

But the Union Betterment Party, formed by ex-general and former ally of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Shwe Mann; the People’s Party, formed by 1988 student leaders, and the People’s Pioneer Party (PPP), led by ex-NLD members, kicked off their campaigns.

“We have difficulties going to places under lockdown. And in other places, we do not want residents to think we are spreading coronavirus. So we watch developments. We did nothing special today,” PPP central executive committee member U Kyaw Lin told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

The Democratic Party for a New Society marked the beginning of the campaign but is waiting to set out its campaign plans, said chairman U Aung Moe Zaw.

“What can we do because we are not allowed to travel? People from Yangon can’t go to other cities because of quarantine. Political parties must be able to travel. But they can’t. Some townships in Yangon, like Thingangyun, are in lockdown. So we find it difficult to campaign in those townships,” he said.

Besides the UEC’s regulations, municipal government orders mean candidates will have to undergo quarantine to travel within regions or states.

Some major parties from Lower Myanmar started campaigning on Sept. 8 in Kachin State but ethnically Kachin parties have been prevented from campaigning.

The Arakan National Party headquarters in Sittwe, Rakhine State, on Sept. 8, 2020. / Min Aung Khine / The Irrawaddy

Karen State People’s Party chairman Dr. Tu Ja said: “If we strictly follow their regulations and stay at home and do not go outside, there will only be online campaigning. Social media is not common in our state. We have difficulties campaigning only by social media. COVID-19 has imposed challenges for campaigning.”

In Shan State, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, Ta’ang National Party and other parties marked the beginning of the campaign but could not hold rallies.

Chin State parties struggle with poor transport links on top of COVID-19 restrictions. “Even in cities like Falam, we have to campaign in small groups in homes,” said Chin National League for Democracy joint chairman Pu No Than Kap.

“If all the parties strictly follow the COVID-19 regulations from the Ministry of Health and Sports, no party will gain an upper hand,” he added.

Some ethnic parties in Karen and Mon states also launched their campaigns on Tuesday, with the Karen People’s Party and Mon Unity Party erecting signs and distributing stickers.

The Kayah State Democratic Party chairman hands the party’s flag to the youth wing on Sept. 8, 2020. / KSDP /Facebook

The challenge is the greatest in Rakhine State, where all 17 townships face stay-at-home orders. Online campaigning is also limited because mobile internet access has been limited to 2G in many townships in an effort to tackle the Arakan Army (AA).

Fighting between Myanmar’s military and the AA has forced over 200,000 people from their homes in northern Rakhine with civilian casualties reported on a daily basis.

U Aung Tha Noe of the Arakan National Party said: “The major challenge is that, as candidates, we cannot talk to people. We cannot say what we feel or answer people’s questions.”

Vice-chairman of the Arakan Front Party U Kyaw Zaw Oo said: “Stay-at-home orders are in effect across Rakhine State. The restrictions are strict and this means we are not allowed to campaign. We can only operate online but 2G internet stops us from doing anything. Perhaps we can set up hoardings. The restrictions are necessary to a certain extent due to health requirements.”

In Kayah State, the only COVID-19-free state or region in Myanmar, the Kayah State Democratic Party and Kayan National Party (KNP) presented candidates and organized rallies on Tuesday.

“Still there are restrictions on meeting the people. Kayah State is COVID-19-free. But we can’t be negligent and we have to exercise caution all the time. We will have to try not to breach the rules in campaigning,” said candidate Khun Myint Naing of the KNP.

More than 90 political parties will field candidates in the Nov. 8 general election, according to the UEC.

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