Activists to Run in Controversial YCDC Elections

By Lawi Weng & May Kha 4 November 2014

RANGOON — A pair of rights activists are among those who will contest the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) elections next month, in a poll that has courted controversy even as it offers voters the chance to choose some of Rangoon’s leaders for the first time.

The two activists—Susanna Hla Hla Soe, a women’s rights advocate, and Win Cho, a land rights champion—have applied to run in the Dec. 27 election, vowing to improve Rangoon residents’ quality of life if elected.

Hla Hla Soe, director of the Karen Women’s Action Group (KWAG), told The Irrawaddy that she would work to strengthen civil society and focus on daily problems faced by constituents in the commercial capital.

“In particular, I found a lot of people in Rangoon face flooding problems,” she said. “I think they need to reform the system in order to solve this problem. I am not an academic on this, but if we cooperate with academics, work together on this, we can successfully solve the problem.”

The 40-year-old women’s rights activist said she would run for election in the northern constituency of Rangoon’s Insein Township.

Win Cho decided to contest the election just days after he was released from prison for staging an unauthorized protest.

“I have done a lot for my people even though I have never held any position in government. I feel this is right time to work for the people, this is why I wanted to join this election,” said Win Cho, who has been jailed several times for his activism.

“If I win, I have many plans for the people of Yangon. Mainly, the important thing is to take responsibility. This is very important. I have found that accountability to the people is often lacking.”

The YCDC election commission has put forward more than a dozen restrictions on who is eligible to run for office and who can vote for candidates. Among them is one—a prohibition on any would-be candidate previously convicted of a crime—that would appear to disqualify Win Cho.

“I feel they [YCDC] may allow me to run in this election,” he said. “They will exempt me from their restriction.”

YCDC has said that it will hold a free and fair election amid criticism that the poll will be anything but, with the restrictions in place including a limit of one vote per household.

Candidates will contest more than 100 seats across four districts comprised of 33 townships in Rangoon. Most coveted will be four seats on the nine-member YCDC. The other five seats on the committee are appointed by the municipal government.

Nyo Nyo Tin, a lawmaker from the Rangoon divisional parliament, said she disapproved of the restrictions in place, including one that would prevent civil servants and “blacklisted” individuals from running.

“Persons on the blacklist, they came back to the country intending to work for the country,” Nyo Nyo Tin said, adding that a requirement that candidates be between the ages of 35 and 65 was also unnecessary.

“Young people cannot participate in the election, according to the age restriction. But look at parliament, there are MPs who are 25 years old. Another point is retirees; they cannot participate as they are over the age limit.”

The YCDC election commission, appointed by a municipal government that was installed by Burma’s former military regime, has also come in for criticism.

“I asked Parliament to form a commission and give power to that commission to administer the election,” said U Kyaw, a lawmaker from the Rangoon divisional parliament. “This was to become the official election commission. But parliament did not do it. I have to ask why they did not do it. I even have to question whether they are working for democracy.”

Despite the criticisms, some 200 candidates have applied to run in the elections, according to the commission.

“We are practicing a democratic system. We listen and have taken the advice of the Yangon parliament,” said a member of the commission who did not want to be named.

In addition to the four YCDC seats, 12 district development committee seats (three from each of Rangoon’s four districts) are up for grabs, as are 99 seats on township development committees (three from each of the city’s 33 townships). The deputy mayor will also be popularly elected, but not the mayor, who is appointed by the president.

Under the voting system put forward by the YCDC election commission, only one person will be allowed to vote per household, putting the voter roll at about 800,000 people. Still, that marks a dramatic increase from an initial proposal that would only have allowed about 30,000 people to vote.

“Everyone who is at least 18 years of age should have a chance to vote based on our Constitution, but they only allow one person to vote [per family],” said U Kyaw. “This will not be a free and fair election.”