In Person

Politicians in Myanmar’s Rakhine Must Stop Fighting Each Other: Independent Candidate

By Nyein Nyein 23 July 2020

Rakhine lawmakers who represented the Arakan National Party (ANP) in the 2015 general election but later resigned can only run as independent candidates in November’s general election, rather than representing another party.

The Union Election Commission (UEC) answered a question from an ANP Lower House parliamentarian on July 13 saying no one can represent another party before they are officially expelled from their original party. Running as anything other than an independent candidate would violate Article 21 of the Political Party Registration Act, the UEC said.

Now Rakhine lawmaker Daw Htoot May must decide whether to run as an independent or leave constituency no.11 in Ann and Ramree townships in Rakhine State.

She said she has decided to contest the Rakhine ethnic affair minister post in November in Yangon Region, “because we have a political crisis”.

The ANP emerged in 2015 from an alliance of two parties: the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), which contested the 1990 general election, and the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which won seats in the 2010 general election. The ANP won 47 seats in the Union and state parliaments in 2015, winning a majority in the Rakhine State parliament.

Daw Htoot May, 41, left the ANP in March 2016 and became an independent but the ANP neither recognizes her resignation nor works with her in party affairs. She came originally from the ALD and now wants to represent the party, which has now been re-registered.

“I love my work as an MP as I am able to represent my people’s needs,” the enthusiastic politician said. Daw Htoot May now wants to serve the Rakhine people, both in Yangon Region and Rakhine State.

Sharing her experience and the challenges of becoming a parliamentarian, Daw Htoot May urges young people and women to participate in politics and not to be discouraged by the current political situation. Daw Htoot May added that she is determined to continue her political career.

Daw Htoot May spoke in-depth to The Irrawaddy.

You are currently a lawmaker and you aim to become the regional ethnic affairs minister. The nature of the work is different. What do you think of the challenges and how do you prepare for the role? 

As I am an independent candidate, I would face a lot of challenges, compared to those candidates who are backed by a political party. During the election campaign and on the election day, I would have to work hard to get supporters who would volunteer for the election campaign, such as observing polling booths and vote counting.

And most importantly, the current regional minister [from the ANP] has 10 years’ experience in the position. He has his supporters.

Although I am an individual, I believe that the voters would look into my efforts in the past five years and accept my capacity to serve in the position. I would have to try harder than other candidates.

Do you think the UEC’s decision is fair to prevent people listed as party members from running for other parties, despite requests to leave?

That decision is unfair, not only for a citizen but also for a party member. No candidate should represent two political parties. But I did not break any party rules and am not a member of two parties.

The ANP is a merger of two parties. We had many difficulties when the merger was negotiated but we put them aside and focused on working together in solidarity to fulfill the Rakhine people’s needs. We accepted “the gentlemen’s agreement” which was reached between the two leaders at the party conference. We entered the 2015 election and I was elected representing the ANP.

But we younger politicians are being sandwiched between rival political groups.

Since the merger, there has been much injustice from the party leadership. The RNDP maintained many central executive committee roles, violated regulations and expelled some ALD members of the committee.

The ANP leadership objects to current MPs being able to run for another party.

It happens because we had a weak tradition of democracy and political culture. Whoever is in power, they want to control everything and that’s the problem.

In the 2018 by-election, the ANP objected to the ALD candidate for Rathedaung in the state parliament but the UEC allowed him to contest as a candidate.

It should be the same for me. I am not a member of two parties. I submitted my resignation to the ANP [in 2016] and publicly announced my resignation.

The UEC’s answer to the Lower House is inconsistent. If a candidate is eligible, they should be entitled to their rights. The commission does not need to intervene in such issues. If there is any problem between me and the party, there are laws to sue. Therefore, the commission’s decision is unfair.

Younger politicians, like you, have suffered from political rivalries and young people face obstacles. Does it discourage young people from participating in politics? 

There are challenges for young people, especially young women, in Rakhine State when participating in politics. Political parties need to create space to allow them to participate. We do not ask for a position, we never do. But they need to acknowledge us.

Younger people may not have enough money but they have strength and they are good at studying and contributing to parties.

As politics needs more than one person, we need to have harmony between different age groups. Older politicians need to avoid having groups and ignoring others when they have the upper hand. Mindsets need to be changed. It is important to evaluate what to do next.

The Rakhine population in Myanmar is a little over 3 million. We hope to create a federal union with self-determination and must welcome the next generation.

But the ANP leadership has forgotten about the merger of the parties. As the RNDP hold most of the leadership roles, they try to block former ALD politicians.

Despite the challenges, younger people and women must continue to stand up. I am aware that I would face more challenges if I continue to take part in politics, but I will overcome these problems.

Younger people need to know the truth that the merged party avoided solving the political issues and did not acknowledge the existence of other parties and made decisions that hurt others.

What is the reason for such disunity among Rakhine politicians? 

We did not have unity because of injustice. There has been unfairness since cooperation started. Disunity happens when there is a lack of respect. The party centered itself around powerful individuals, without creating strong institutions.

We were not familiar with democratic systems after decades under the military regime. We should be demanding justice. We failed to build strong institutions and the party leadership just took power for themselves.

Public perceptions of politicians have changed. It is sad to see disappointment towards politicians who use their power for personal gain. Only when we build our political integrity and political culture can we create unity among ourselves.

I am sad to say that our political party failed to strengthen institutional development, but rather there is bullying by those who have already got the upper hand. Younger people have to try hard. I am not assaulting or attacking anyone. I am saying it as everyone should know the truth.

There are perceptions that Rakhine State’s problems are caused by the ethnic Bamar, the government or military. But Rakhine parties are divided. Who is responsible for that? 

I don’t think blaming others based on ethnicity is a good approach and it does not find the right solutions. Our country is in conflict because of the system, not because of ethnic groups. Since independence, a federal system was not established and it leads to today’s conflict, where the majority oppresses the minorities.

The root causes are ignorance of rights for ethnic minorities and the state leaders’ use of arms to govern. So we have ethnic armed organizations fighting for their rights across the country.

I don’t look at the problem from the ethnicity point of view. As we have many ethnic groups, people tend to refer to either majority or minority groups. For me, those who implement the system try to break up unity and cause conflict.

I will not blame others for what is happening in Rakhine. I discuss the challenges we are facing and criticize the situation, but I don’t blame anyone. I try to find solutions. It is easy to blame others but we need to analyze the cause of the conflict.

You have raised many issues in Parliament about your current constituency and Rakhine development. What have you learned from your constituents about Rakhine political affairs? How do you assess voters’ political experiences? 

They know that Myanmar still needs to do much for political change. And they are optimistic when they share their opinions on Myanmar’s politics. They commit to participating in change and hope their representatives and parties work for reform. They understand that changes are needed.

On development, voters are angry about the budget allocation. We discuss federalism and the sharing of natural resources. They were not satisfied with the central government’s sharing out of natural resources.

In Yangon in 2015, there was about 69 percent voter turnout in the Rakhine ethnic affairs ministerial election. In Hlaing Tharyar, where many Rakhine migrant workers live, there was some 40 percent voter turnout for parliamentary seats. As you will be running in the region, what do you expect the voter turnout to be this year?

The voter turnout could be very different from the 2015 general election because conditions in 2020 are difficult. In 2015, Rakhine people’s political enthusiasm was high, they had high expectations following the merger of the two parties.

Now we are facing COVID-19 and many migrants have returned to their homes or lost their jobs and are facing economic hardship. They may think nothing will change if they vote. We are hearing these frustrations from the people.

For people to cast their ballots, we have to follow COVID-19 preventative measures. And we have to explain why each ballot is important. People need to understand that their vote helps to choose the government or minister they want and keep out those that they do not like. When they understand, they will surely come out to vote. Politicians have the responsibility to make it right.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

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