RANGOON — In a rare bright spot for ethnic political parties, Arakanese politicians from two camps managed to patch up their differences ahead of Burma’s 2015 election and merge into one political entity, the Arakan National Party (ANP), which proved to be the country’s best-performing ethnic electoral force in the Nov. 8 poll. Less than three months on, however, that Arakanese unity appears strained as jockeying continues over precisely what form Burma’s new political order will take.
In early 2014, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) and Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) merged to form the ANP, in hopes of preventing vote-splitting as the two sides looked ahead to the 2015 election. The move paid off, with the new Arakanese incarnation securing 45 seats out of the 77 constituencies it contested.
Success in the Arakan State legislature was viewed as particularly crucial to the party’s goal of going into 2016 with the political leverage it needed to convince the National League for Democracy (NLD), which emerged victorious by a landslide in all but Arakan and Shan states, to appoint an ANP parliamentarian-elect as state chief minister. So it was no doubt with dismay that the Arakan party’s leaders learned last month that the NLD fully intended to choose one of its own MPs-elect for the post, which is presidentially appointed.
“Maybe the ANP can obtain the regional parliament speakership post but the state chief minister will be from the NLD,” Nan Khin Htwe Myint, an NLD central committee member, told The Irrawaddy.
And in mid-January, fellow NLD central committee member Nyi Pu, who has been tipped by some for the chief minister position, visited the state capital Sittwe to meet with civil society organizations and ANP representatives, reportedly reiterating Nan Khin Htwe Myint’s assertion.
Despite this being mere recitation of constitutionally enshrined ruling party prerogatives, the local CSOs and ANP members in attendance urged Nyi Pu to push for his party to make an exception in the case of Arakan State.
Official backlash came about a week later, when on Jan. 19 the ANP said in a statement that it “won’t join any government organization, but stand as an opposition party for the interests of Arakan people,” unless it was allowed to form its own government.
By all accounts, the incoming NLD government and one of Burma’s strongest ethnic political parties looked headed for confrontation—except that the “official” ANP statement appears to have taken some in the party leadership by surprise.
Two days after the ANP statement was released, political prognostication went into overdrive after NLD spokesman Nyan Win told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that senior party member Win Myint had been selected to serve as speaker of the Union Parliament’s Lower House, while the ethnic Karen MP-elect Mahn Win Khaing Than, also of the NLD, would get the party’s backing for the Upper House.
In ANP circles, it was an additional veiled disclosure that likely garnered more attention: Nyan Win told the news agency that his party was eyeing an ANP member for the Upper House deputy speaker post.
The NLD on Thursday confirmed ANP patron Aye Tha Aung as its selection for the job, but even before that he had found himself in speculation’s crosshairs, as a veteran politician with longstanding ties to the NLD who won an Upper House seat on Nov. 8.
Asked by The Irrawaddy whether he had been tapped for the post, Aye Tha Aung pled ignorance last week.
“I don’t know yet, but I wasn’t offered this [the Lower House deputy speakership], so it’s impossible to comment on that,” he said on Jan. 21.
The following morning, the ANP released a second statement, saying that if any of its MPs-elect accepted the offer of another party to serve in a ministerial post or other leadership position without informing the party, the individual would be expelled. The statement was signed by Phoe Min, one of three ANP vice chairs.
Then on Monday, Aye Tha Aung was returning from a trip to Japan when several journalists at Rangoon International Airport asked the ANP patron about reports of tension between his party and the NLD, as well as perceived internal ructions.
“We don’t know about the [ANP] statements and they didn’t inform us, so I have no comment regarding the statements,” he said. “Until the reporters asked me, I didn’t know it.”
According to ANP central committee member Myo Kyaw, party bylaws state that if an important announcement is proposed, the party leadership must call an urgent meeting to discuss the matter. While not all 39 of the party’s central committee members must be present, a minimum one-third attendance—or 13 members—is required, he said.
When The Irrawaddy phoned ANP vice chairwoman Aye Nu Sein this week, she declined to provide any clarification on party procedures or discuss confusion surrounding the two statements this month.
“Too many arguments have happened, it doesn’t make sense to rehash at this time,” she said.
Sitting Lower House legislator Pe Than was more forthcoming, admitting that senior members of the ANP leadership did not inform the full central committee before releasing the two statements. He defended that decision, saying that under exceptional circumstances, the chairperson and seven other central committee members who form the top echelon of the party hierarchy “have full power to make an announcement [unilaterally].”
That group of eight includes party chairman Aye Maung, the three vice chairs and four secretaries, all of whom were members of the RNDP before the merger.
Pe Than said the second statement, signed by Phoe Min, was released in part to encourage party-to-party interactions and discourage a party-to-person approach, the latter being “dangerous” for ANP unity.
Myo Kyaw, formerly of the ALD, criticized the decision.
“If the party chairman and secretary team wanted to announce a statement, they should not put it out on behalf of the CEC [central committee]. It is against party procedures,” he said.
“I am not sure whether they only ignored [the rules, unintentionally], or intentionally did it to disintegrate the party,” he said, adding: “Seven people neglected 39 CEC [members’] desire. How can we be satisfied with that?”
The ALD was founded in 1989 in Rangoon and its chairman was Aye Tha Aung, who contested the 1990 election and won, along with 10 other ALD candidates in a vote dominated by the NLD. That electoral outcome was ignored by the military, however, which went on to imprison many of the victorious candidates from the NLD and ALD, including Aye Tha Aung.
Years later he would become a member of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP), formed by the NLD and victorious ethnic politicians to push for the convening of a parliament seating the 1990 election winners. With ties dating back more than two decades, Aye Tha Aung and the NLD leadership have long been considered to be on friendly terms.
Both the ALD and NLD boycotted Burma’s 2010 election, in part citing the poll’s basis in a military-drafted Constitution that the two parties deemed illegitimate.
That year, the newly founded RNDP contested 44 seats and won 35. With its success and the ALD’s return to the political arena in the aftermath, discussion turned to uniting the Arakanese forces ahead of the 2015 election, when otherwise voters might be asked to choose between two political parties competing for the same ethnic vote. That merger came about, and the new ANP was officially registered, in January 2014.
‘Every Party Has Similar Problems’
An ANP central committee member, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal party matters candidly, said Aye Tha Aung’s CRPP ties have not helped his standing in the eyes of some.
“RNDP people think that Aye Tha Aung and the NLD are so close; they don’t like it,” he said.
The ANP’s success in November belies a merger that has not been as smooth as might be apparent on the surface. Former ALD members complain that the RNDP has dominated the party, the result of a lopsided distribution of past party ties on the central committee, where 31 members are ex-RNDP, compared with only eight former ALD.
Pe Than said the reason for the imbalance was that the RNDP argued ahead of the merger that it deserved a greater proportion of representation on the central committee because it was the incumbent party and had established networks among voters in rural constituencies.
Myo Kyaw said recent internal contention would need to be resolved if the merger was to remain viable in the coming years. He highlighted what he claimed was the top leadership’s willingness to violate the party’s own bylaws as disrespectful to its supporters and the public.
“Merger dynamics are not good at the moment,” said Myo Kyaw.
Pe Than acknowledged internal frictions between ALD and RNDP party members, but he downplayed the significance of the divide.
“Every party has similar problems. You can see from the USDP crisis, our party is not as bad as that,” he said, referring to the high-profile purge of ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party chairman Shwe Mann in August. “All our party members stand together for the [Arakanese] national interest.”
But speaking to reporters at Rangoon International Airport on Monday, Aye Tha Aung sounded a less confident note.
“My future is uncertain with the ANP,” he said.