Among Trio of Party Coalitions, Deals to Avoid Competing Prove Elusive

By Yen Saning 30 July 2015

RANGOON — After years of dialogue, deal-making and a proliferation of acronyms touted as indication of varying degrees of political cooperation and fealty, Burma’s three largest political party alliances look set to enter the Nov. 8 election without any firm commitment to avoid infighting.

Almost 50 ethnic parties from the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) and Federal Democracy Alliance (FDA) could potentially be competing within their respective coalitions, as well as against the country’s two biggest political parties in November.

Racing to meet an Aug. 8 deadline for candidate submissions, two of those alliances, the NBF and UNA, met this week to discuss how best to ensure electoral success in the face of the much better resourced Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and National League for Democracy (NLD).

In the end, neither grouping appears to have been able to ink a pact that would ensure fellow NBF or UNA members do not compete for votes in the 1,171 races in play later this year.

Saw Than Myint, spokesman for the NBF, made a point of describing his grouping as a “brotherhood federation” rather than an alliance.

“We do not control [member] parties,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “We work as brothers and give freedom to the parties. All member parties have agreed to freely proceed according the party and members’ will.”

Saw Than Myint said that although the NBF had entertained the idea of avoiding potential overlap in constituencies contested by its member parties, a decision was ultimately taken to allow member parties to contest freely rather than compromising.

“If we were to negotiate, there could be difficulties from each side,” he said, without elaborating.

“[Some parties] will negotiate in some areas. Not at the arrangement of the NBF, but based on closeness. For example, in Mon State, the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party and All Mon Region Democracy Party can negotiate with their own plan,” Saw Than Myint added.

In a statement released by the NBF on Monday, the 23 ethnic political parties that comprise the brotherhood publicly declared that its members had not formed an alliance with any of Burma’s “big parties” either. The NBF went on to say that it would coordinate to form regional governments in ethnic states if its members won a majority.

“The NBF has been planning since 2012-13; ethnic parties must be able to form governments in the seven states. We must win a landslide in the [regional] parliaments to form governments. We have plans to win in a landslide over any parties that come from the mainland,” said Saw Than Myint, referring to the country’s majority-Bamar dominated heartland.

But with both the ruling USDP and opposition NLD expressing ambitions and boasting financial resources far exceeding most of Burma’s political parties, any race in which two or more NBF, UNA or FDA members compete is likely to harm the alliances’ overall electoral prospects, with one of the two biggest parties well-positioned to reap the spoils of a split vote.

Asked about the possibility of votes being split even further—in some cases between two or more political parties claiming to represent the interests of a single ethnic group—the NBF spokesman said every overlapping claim to genuine ethnic representativeness could be resolved.

This was currently happening, he claimed, in Mon and Karen states, where two or more parties claim to represent the dominant ethnic minority group in those constituencies.

“Most important is that whatever party wins, authentic ethnic-based parties need to win,” Saw Than Myint said.

The NBF statement on Monday also condemned any “ill-willed” parties that intend to contest the 29 seats reserved for ethnic affairs ministers nationwide, with the exception of Bamar ethnic affairs minister seats, saying the brotherhood “prefers that only ethnic parties compete for ethnic affairs ministers’ [posts].”

Meanwhile, a meeting of the eight political parties that make up the UNA, joined by partner organizations including ethnic armed groups and civil society organizations, also ended with no concrete plan to avoid potential vote-splitting among its members.

Aye Thar Aung, party patron of UNA member the Arakan National Party (ANP), said there was less likelihood that the eight UNA member parties would field competing claims to a given constituency, give the alliance’s relatively smaller size.

In cases where overlapping ambitions for a constituency arise among UNA members, Aye Thar Aung said those parties “can easily negotiate.”

The ANP leader said that although the UNA did not have a strategy to win as an alliance, its members shared one fundamental belief.

“We think the 2008 Constitution needs to be amended to form a democratic state, to stop civil war, to precede nationwide peace. We believed it cannot happen without amending the 2008 Constitution. We will continue to try in the Parliament and out of the Parliament,” Aye Thar Aung said.

The FDA—a 13-member alliance that includes five ethnic parties—also has no plan to cooperate among its member parties, according to Thu Wai, chairman of the alliance member Democratic Party (Myanmar). Thu Wai downplayed the possibility of its members fielding competing candidates, however.

“We might have a little overlap in Irrawaddy Division, but we can’t do anything about that. We might have to compete, with understanding.”