In Person

Female Candidate Stumps For Shan Vote in Mandalay

By Nyein Nyein 1 November 2018

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A total of 69 candidates from 24 parties are contesting the 13 seats up for grabs in Saturday’s by-elections. Only seven of them are women.

A passionate advocate of Shan culture, Nang Htwe Hmone is running with the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) party for the Shan ethnic affairs minister seat in Mandalay. There are 29 ethnic affairs minister posts across the country, directly elected — unlike other ministers — by the members of each ethnic group in the region or state.

Nang Htwe Hmone, 53, has been in politics for the past 29 years, since joining the SNLD in 1989, and is now a member of her party’s central committee. She lives in Muse, in northern Shan State, and as a lawyer who fights for land and human rights. She ran for a seat in the Upper House of the state legislature in the 2015 general elections but lost.

Ethnic Shan in Mandalay are voting for a new ethnic affairs minister because the incumbent died in January. Candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy, its main rival, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) are also campaigning hard for the seat. One prominent candidate is former Deputy Hotels and Tourism Minister U Sai Kyaw Ohn of the SNDP, who was also a Lower House lawmaker during the previous administration.

The Irrawaddy senior reporter Nyein Nyein spoke with Nang Htwe Hmone about her experiences during in this election campaign and the challenges she has faced.

What challenges have you faced campaigning for the ethnic affair minister post that are different from those of running for the state, region or union parliament?

There are many, because the area is too vast. For instance, in Myingyan, a constituency in Mandalay Region, there are only 22 Shan people and they live scattered. So in such cases we cannot go there because the campaign cost is too high. It is also the same for towns like Yamaethin. So we would not be within the budget (if we went there), which is no more than 10 million kyats ($6,227) for the campaign according to the Union Election Commission (UEC).

There are just over 40,000 eligible voters in the region according to official figures. How many people were you able to meet during the campaign? 

I went to mobilize people in 21 of the 28 townships in six districts of Mandalay. Shan reside in almost every townships, except three. I did not make it to four townships, such as Kyaukse and Myingyan, because there are very few Shan in those areas. I went mostly to Mogok and Pyin Oo Lwin, where many Shan live, and also to Mandalay. But I could not make it to every place because Mandalay Region is huge. It is also hard for us to know exactly where Shan reside, so I campaigned door-to-door.

How enthusiastic are the Shan to vote in the upcoming by-election?

After I decided to contest this post, I looked at the voter lists and I copied them. There I found that many of the names are not Shan. They are Burmese, Indian and Chinese names, so I was worried. People do not understand how to raise issues if there is something wrong with the voter list. At that time it was August. Thank you to the UEC, because it made a public announcement encouraging voters to check the list and make corrections or to add their names if they were not on the list. Everyone who is over 18 years old can vote and the young voters need to be aware too. But the public did not know and did not understand.

When we were able to start campaigning on Sept. 3, we educated voters and encouraged them to check the voter lists and follow the procedures if their names were not on the list. Many did not know how and we helped them by sharing information about going to the village-level electoral commissions to check.

But in Mandalay, Shan are also busy with their businesses and they could not check. Now we are hearing that their names are not on the voter lists or that their names appear two or three time on the lists. Only those who could check within two weeks after the voter lists were updated can vote now, and those who did not have time to check have to let it go.

What are the current needs of the Shan people and what can you do for them?

What I saw during the campaign was that many Shan are not on the voter list to vote for the Shan ethnic affairs minister because they are registered as Bamar on their IDs and household registration. So they have lost their right to vote (this time). They want to be Shan, of course. It is one of the many things I want to change.

In Mandalay’s Pyin Oo Lwin and Mogok townships, I met many Shan, but they cannot speak the Shan language. So one definite thing is we have to help them learn the language. Currently the ethnic language classes are taught outside of the school curriculum. So I have been thinking about how to help them.

What challenges have you faced as a woman candidate, since your rivals are all men? 

During the campaign it is normal that one side attacks another. But we avoided using impolite words that would damage another party or individual. But we would be showing great magnanimity towards our opponents if there were none. Also, I am lucky that I have not faced any security threats being a woman candidate.

Do you expect to win in this by-election? And if so, to what extent?

My campaign has mainly focused on the Shan voters in Mogok and Pyin Oo Lwin. I dare not say whether I will win. But I think the support is more than 50 percent.

You are the only woman candidate for the SNLD, and there are relatively few women candidates in this by-election. Women face more challenges when they enter politics, but they keep participating. Why do you think women continue to choose to take part in politics? 

There are more women than men in the world, in Myanmar, and even in the Shan community. Then there are many women who are leading businesses. I became interested in politics in my youth, and there are many women who can lead in politics, like those who are leading their households and who are famous.

Women think sharply. Men and women think differently, and the country can succeed when these two opposite ways of thinking are combined, like a family with both a man and a woman working together to make a better life.

What are the other challenges for Shan people, besides the development of Shan literature and culture? 

I would focus on the development of Shan literature and culture, but we also have other challenges. What I want to achieve is to open up their thinking and make them get on well in society. Our people are afraid to go to governmental offices, and they always step back when there are cases to deal with. I want to help them change that thinking. When they are aware, they will stand up for themselves, and I believe that would help them have peaceful lives.

What would be your message to the voters, especially the young voters who just turned 18 this year?

The youth are the future leaders. Therefore, you need to take part in political activities. Instead of wasting time at the teashops, please share your efforts for the country. Also, I would like to urge all the eligible voters in Mandalay not to forget to go to the polling booths to cast their votes on Nov. 3.