‘The People Will Decide if Myanmar’s Election Is Free and Fair’
By Htet Naing Zaw 27 October 2020
Myanmar’s administrative capital Naypyitaw has seen intense campaigning by rival parties ahead of the Nov. 8 election. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and other parties are contesting in the Union territory.
U Min Thu, chairman of the NLD’s Naypyitaw chapter and a member of the party’s election campaign committee, recently sat down with The Irrawaddy’s Htet Naing Zaw and talked about the competition between parties, and the challenges to campaigning posed by COVID-19.
The NLD won almost all the seats in Naypyitaw in 2015. What is your general assessment of the Nov. 8 election?
We are trying our best to win all 10 seats up for grabs. Our leader Mother Suu [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] has said we must win for the sake of the people, for the victory of the people and the country—in other words, in order to strengthen democracy. To quote a saying, the lion makes the same efforts to catch its prey, regardless of its size.
Ex-generals from the opposition party are contesting the election in Naypyitaw in what appears to be an attempt to gain control of the territory. The opposition chairman himself is running for office in Zeyarthiri Township. In 2015, most of the military units voted for the opposition party, according to the poll results. What are the main challenges facing the NLD when it comes to competing with ex-generals and early votes?
We already went head-to-head with them in the 2012 by-election. So, we don’t worry about the status of our rivals. What is important is the degree to which we can represent the people. There are large numbers of military voters in Zeyarthiri. [Before] there were around 70,000 military voters. This time there are around 80,000. It is important to note that it is extremely difficult to send [party representatives] to military polling stations. At least two [party representatives] have to be sent to a polling station—two for the Upper House and two for the Lower House [for a total of four]. But we were not able to send any representatives to those [military] polling stations. We were denied access.
We were not informed about how early votes were cast. We only knew when early votes would be cast. But we were not allowed to go into the cantonment and monitor early voting, which otherwise must be allowed under the law.
For instance, the official number of voters at one military polling station was 1,500, but some 1,700 people cast votes there. Meanwhile, at civilian polling stations, people didn’t come out and cast ballots. So this difference shaped the results. We must apply the lessons this time. There are 74 polling stations in Zeyarthiri Township. And we have conducted training on electoral procedures so that we can send party representatives to each polling station.
The NLD has organized rallies during the campaign period. Its caravans have been stoned, its supporters beaten, and its signboards destroyed. What do you want to say as a campaign leader to minimize electoral violence?
The most important thing is to follow the law. The election law prohibits any act of violence—threatening, stoning and so on—that is intended to discourage voters from voting for a particular party. The punishment is one year in prison for violators.
But law enforcement organizations are not able to enforce it. It is not as if such incidents are something new. In 2012, I was shot at with a catapult, but the stone missed and hit a young girl instead. We had evidence. We opened a case under the relevant law. There were similar cases. But the perpetrators either weren’t identified or could not be found in most cases.
In Zeyarthiri, soon after the campaign period started, our party signboard was destroyed by teenagers. They would not have done so unless instigated by someone else. But the law is the law.
In the past, the ruling party was untouchable because they were the government. We are the government now, but our party is hit from time to time. But if we uphold the law, those undesirable activities directed at us will be reduced to a certain extent.
How free and fair can the election be amid the COVID-19 outbreak?
We were [formerly the] opposition party, and we contested the election [organized by the previous government]. No matter what restrictions are in place, there is no need to be concerned about it if [the party has] public support. The people will decide if the election is free and fair.
They wouldn’t join [rallies] if they thought the election wasn’t going to be free and fair. But they have actually been too active in showing their support.
The NLD has continuously engaged in election campaign events despite COVID-19. What are the challenges for the NLD at such a time?
It is not just NLD members, candidates and campaign committees who are conducting the campaign; the public is actively showing support during this campaign period. This is unique.
The COVID-19 outbreak is ongoing, and the Ministry of Health has issued regulations about campaigning. We follow those instructions to the letter as well as the guidelines issued by the Union Election Commission.
Due to COVID-19, we have to ensure social distancing, and that less than 50 people are present at an event. And we use masks, face shields and gloves to minimize contact.
Though we are experiencing the COVID-19 outbreak, we can’t suspend the election. It is important to prevent COVID-19, and it is also important to hold the election. So, we have to hold the election amid the restrictions.
It is very difficult to control party supporters, and we have asked them to show their support in an organized way, in line with COVID-19 health guidelines. Party candidates, campaigners and [party representatives] have to abide by the regulations to the letter.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko
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