Election 2020

Will Local Ethnic Parties’ Popularity Make a Difference for Myanmar's Largest State This Time?

By Zin Lin Htet & Hset Paing Toe 4 November 2020

NAYPYITAW—As Myanmar gears up for its general election on Nov. 8, The Irrawaddy takes a look at the electoral landscape in Shan State, the largest state in Myanmar and home to an ethnically diverse population.

The state is home to Shan, Bamar, Pa-O, Palaung, Lahu, Danu, Kokang, Akha, Wa, Kachin and other groups with ethnicity-based political parties.

Meanwhile, there are at least eight ethnic armed organizations in Shan State that are engaged in armed struggle against the government instead of a political path for change.

Electoral landscape of Shan State

According to the 2014 census and the Shan State Election Sub-commission, Shan State has a population of 5.8 million and over 3.5 million are eligible to cast votes in this year’s election.

Apart from ethnicity-based local parties, major political parties from Burmese-majority areas are also competing in this year’s balloting in Shan State.

There are 15 local parties including the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which is popular with local residents. In terms of ethnicity, there are two political parties each representing Shan people, Kokang people, Pa-O people, Danu people and Intha people, while Wa, Lahu, Akha, Ta’ang and Kachin people have one party each.

Dr. Lin Htut, Shan State chief minister, is seen at a campaign event. / Hset Paing Toe / The Irrawaddy

The major rival parties from Burmese-majority areas are, as usual, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), and the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In addition, the Union Betterment Party led by ex-general U Shwe Mann, the People’s Pioneer Party led by business tycoon Dr. Thet Thet Khaing and the People’s Party led by 88 Generation Students leader U Ko Ko Gyi are also running for some seats in Shan.

There are 184 seats up for grabs in Shan—55 seats in the Lower House, 12 seats in the Upper House, 110 seats in the state parliament, and seven ethnic affairs minister positions.

Constituencies where voting has been canceled

The Union Election Commission (UEC) announced on Oct. 16 that voting has been canceled in six townships—Mongla, Mongmao, Namphan, Pangwaun, Pangkham and Mong Kung—due to the threat of armed violence. With the exception of Mong Kung, elections could not be held in the other five townships in the 2015 general election.

Pangkham, Namphan, Mongmao and Pangwaun are under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), and Mongla is under the control of the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), better known as the Mongla Group. In other words, elections cannot be held in those townships because they are beyond the control of the national government.

Mong Kung is under the control of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS). The RCSS only allows Shan political parties to campaign in Mong Kung, particularly targeting the Ta’ang National Party (TNP). After the TNP filed a complaint with the UEC, the electoral body decided to cancel the election in Mong Kung.

Most of the wards and village-tracts where elections are canceled are in eastern and northern Shan State.

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) campaigns in Lashio, Shan State. / Hset Paing Toe / The Irrawaddy

Despite the fact that there are more than a dozen political parties in Shan State, the 2020 election battle will be between just five competitors, as it was in the 2015 election.

The USDP won the majority in 2015, followed by the SNLD and the NLD. The Pa-O National Organization (PNO) and the TNP also won in places where their ethnic people make up the majority.

Can the USDP repeat its victory?

The military’s proxy party won 15 Lower House seats in Shan in the 2015 election. This time around the party will compete for all the seats except in the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone (SAZ), fielding more than 150 candidates, said USDP spokesman Dr. Nanda Hla Myint, who is running for the Lower House seat in Kalaw Township.

“The USDP is strong in Shan State, and I hope it will be stronger than it was in 2015,” said U Nanda Hla Myint. He is a Kalaw native and a member of the USDP’s Central Executive Committee.

His main rival is Daw Pyone Kathy Naing of the NLD, who is currently a Lower House lawmaker for Kalaw Township. In the 2015 election, she defeated her USDP rival U Tin Naing Thein by some 8,000 votes. She served on the Lower House International Relations Committee and the Union Parliament’s Joint Committee on the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly.

Because there are large numbers of military units and military-backed people’s militia groups in Shan, political analysts suggest their votes will go to the USDP, and the party may be able to repeat its success on Nov. 8. In the 2015 vote, people’s militias in Kutkai, Kaungkha, Manpan, Panse and Tarmoenye also voted in favor of the USDP.

Yellow Tiger eyes state parliament

The SNLD, with its emblem of a yellow tiger head, expects to dominate the state parliament. The party will field more than 130 candidates across Shan State including in SAZs at the request of Shan people living there, according to joint secretary U Sai Kyaw Nyunt.

Supporters of the Pa-O Nationalities Organization / PNO / Facebook

Most of the candidates are young or middle-aged and 36 candidates are female, he said. The SNLD enjoys popular support in 13 townships from the south to the north. The party won 12 Lower House seats and three Upper House seats in 2015’s balloting.

U Sai Kyaw Nyunt said he expects a hard battle in eastern Shan State, where the USDP is strong. And it will also be a tight race in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State.

“We will have to fight hard in eastern Shan State, but we believe we will win some seats there,” said U Sai Kyaw Nyunt.

NLD seeks greater victory

The ruling NLD is competing in 46 townships but not in the Kokang SAZ, the Wa SAZ or Mongla.

The NLD won as many seats as the SNLD in 2015 with 12 in the Lower House and three in the Upper House. It is especially strong in western Shan State and has greater popularity with urban voters.

The party will go head to head with the USDP in eastern Shan State, where the latter won in 2015, according to NLD Shan State chapter chairman U Zaw Min Latt.

Asked if the NLD could win more seats in Shan State where ethnic parties are getting stronger, U Zaw Min Latt responded, “Definitely.”

Ethnic parties in SAZs

Local political parties won the majority in SAZs in previous elections.

In the 2010 and 2015 general elections, the PNO won convincingly over rival parties in Hopong, Hsi Hseng and Pinlaung townships, which make up the Pa-O SAZ.

A campaign event of the Inn National League Party. / Inn National League Party / Facebook

This year, the party will compete mainly in the Pa-O SAZ as well as Taunggyi, Lawksawk, Nyaungshwe, Kalaw, Loilem and Nansang.

“We will run for 28 seats, and we expect to win 21 seats,” said Saw Khun Kyaw Win, member of the PNO’s CEC. Political observers also suggest that the PNO will be able to repeat its 2015 victory in the Pa-O SAZ.

The TNP secured all the seats up for grabs in the Palaung SAZ in 2015’s balloting. In the Nov. 8 election, it is fielding candidates in Namtu, Lashio, Namhkam, Muse, Kutkai and Kyaukme townships in addition to the SAZ.

The TNP previously planned to run in Mong Kung in the RCSS’s territory, but after the armed group disturbed the campaign activities of non-Shan parties, the UEC decided to cancel the voting there.

The party currently holds 12 seats and its CEC member Tar Hla Pe said the party expects to secure more than 20 seats this year.

Will three heads be better than one?

The Wa National Party (WNP), which is the result of collaboration on the part of the Wa National Unity Party, the Wa Democratic Party and the Wa Liberal Democratic Development Party, is expected to benefit from the merger.

The party will compete only in Hopan and Matman townships in the Wa SAZ, said party chairman Sai Pao Nup.

In 2015, the WDP won a Lower House seat in Hopang and independent candidate U Tin Aye won in Matman. Wa parties however lost to the USDP for the Upper House seats although it won seats in the state parliament.

The three parties have merged in response to demands of the Wa people and have a high chance of winning on Nov. 8.

Possible outcome

According to political observers, there are two possible outcomes. The first one is that the results of the 2015 election will be repeated with the USDP winning the majority, followed by the NLD and the SNLD.

Another possibility is that ethnic parties might win a larger share of the seats.

Former lawmaker and political analyst U Ye Htun believes the results of this year’s election will not be much different from those of 2015.

“You can’t underestimate the USDP. These are its strongholds in Shan. And most of the people’s militias support the USDP. The NLD is supported mostly by the urban population. And COVID-19 will also affect voter turnout,” he said.

Executive director Ko Ye Myo Hein of the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies suggested ethnic parties could be stronger in the coming election because of ethnic people’s frustration with centralization over the past five years.

“There has been a growing perception that only ethnic parties can effectively serve the interests of respective ethnic groups, that you have to have lawmakers of your ethnicity in Parliament if you want to see greater development of your region, and that the central government can’t do the job as well,” he said.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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