Beyond the Ballot Box in Chaungzon Township

By Hintharnee 3 April 2017

MOULMEIN, Mon State — U Aung Kyi Thein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was elected in the April 1 by-election to represent Mon State’s Chaungzon Township in the Lower House.

Candidates of two Mon political parties as well as one from the National League for Democracy (NLD) lost to the USDP—and it was not a marginal defeat. The candidate from the ruling NLD lost by more than 7,000 votes.

“Mainly they lost because they are not locals, but I am,” U Aung Kyi Thein told The Irrawaddy. “Again, during the 60 days of campaigning, I spent 55 days meeting with my constituents. I went to three, four places a day, and met locals. There are 78 villages in the township, and I went to every village. So, the result is the outcome of my hard work,” he explained.

Chaungzon Township was the only Mon State constituency holding by-elections. Despite the fact that the vote received little attention from citizens, many were interested to see the results—particularly for the NLD, after the ruling party faced local opposition in the run-up to the election related to the controversial naming of a bridge after Gen Aung San. The structure runs across the Salween River and links Moulmein (Mawlamyine) and Chaungzon.

Residents favored naming the bridge “Yamanya,” meaning “Mon State” in the ethnic Mon language, or simply the Salween Bridge (Chaungzon). But the NLD kept the name honoring the Burmese independence icon Aung San after a vote affirming it as such in the Lower House of Parliament in March.

The bridge’s proposed name became known when the Ministry of Construction sent a letter to the Mon State parliament, announcing a celebratory opening ceremony for the bridge on Feb. 13—what would have been the 102nd birthday of the late Gen Aung San. Locals were outraged by the decision and the opening was canceled.

Former chief minister of Mon State U Min Min Oo said he would reconsider the proposed name, but then Mon State’s Paung Township NLD lawmaker Mi Kon Chan put forward a motion to the Lower House to name the bridge after Gen Aung San.

The motion was followed by a protest of around 3,000 people near the bridge construction site. After the Lower House approved Mi Kon Chan’s proposal, more than 20,000 locals then took to the streets in protest. This series of events created an important test for NLD influence and prominence in the elections that followed.

NLD candidate U Aye Win admitted that the controversy surrounding the naming of the bridge was likely one of the factors that contributed to his loss in Chaungzon Township.

“Many things happened in the run-up to the by-election—for example, the bridge case. Again, the collaboration of executives at different levels is weak, and again the turnout was low. I thought an [ethnic] Mon party would win if the NLD didn’t, but the results did not meet my expectations,” U Aye Win told The Irrawaddy.

Other factors were likely at play, as well. NLD party members in Chaungzon Township had chosen U Saw Lin Aung—a villager from a community called Thatkkaw—as their preferred candidate to contest in the by-election. However, the NLD central executive committee selected U Aye Win, who is not a local. NLD members from the area, led by their peers from Thatkkaw village, staged a protest in front of the office of the Mon State NLD chapter.

The NLD, USDP, National Unity Party, and two ethnic Mon parties—the Mon National Party and the All Mon Region Democracy Party—contested in Chaungzon Township.

U Win Htut, the candidate representing the All Mon Region Democracy Party, said that a vote split between the two Mon parties was unfortunately, but inevitable, and attributed this as “the main reason” for his loss.

“The party that won the election is an established party and has a strong membership. It has core members in every village, and is in a position to rally locals’ support more effectively. Another reason is that Mon people have less interest in politics,” U Win Htut said.

Of 126,225 eligible voters in Chaungzon, only 48,532 cast votes—a turnout of just 38.4 percent.

The USDP received 19,667 votes, the NLD got 12,636 votes, and the All Mon Region Democracy party got 10,895 votes. The National Unity Party earned just 2,013 votes and the New Mon State Party got 1,992 votes.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko