In Burma, Ethnic Loyalties Could Crimp Suu Kyi’s Party

By Aubrey Belford 8 July 2015

TAUNGGYI, Shan State — Political parties representing Burma’s ethnic minorities could pick up a sizeable number of seats in a general election later this year, presenting a stumbling block for the ambitions of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is looking to become a dominant force in Parliament after the November elections, taking over the reins of a military-initiated reform process that is now seen as stalled.

Burma does not have opinion polls, but analysts widely believe the NLD will prevail over the ruling, pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of President Thein Sein in the country’s heartland, home to the majority Bamar ethnic group.

But on the fringes, parties representing many of the country’s 134 minorities are expected to romp home, potentially creating a third force that could stifle the NLD’s ambitions to take the reins of reform.

Any constitutional change can only be initiated with the approval of at least three-fourths of the 664-member Parliament, while about 30 percent of the seats are from the seven ethnic minority states.

“Assuming the election is a fair fight, the ethnic parties will prevail in the ethnic areas,” said Simon Billinness, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, who recently met with ethnic leaders.

“If ethnic parties were to win many seats in Parliament, that would significantly increase their bargaining power.”

Both the NLD and the USDP are dominated by Bamar, a community widely resented by the country’s minorities.

Among the scores of ethnic parties likely to play a role in the poll is the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), commonly known as the White Tiger Party.

Representing the Shan minority—who are estimated to make up less than 10 percent of the population—the SNDP is confident of a thundering victory in and around Shan State, a conflict-scarred and hilly region in the east of Burma that borders China, Laos and Thailand.

While there is deep distrust of the military and the USDP, there is little enthusiasm for Suu Kyi, who is seen first and foremost as another Bamar leader.

“Shan people will support a Shan party because of nationalism,” SNDP Chairman Sai Ai Pao said in an interview in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state. “All ethnic nationals are like this.”

A 25 percent share of Parliament’s seats is reserved for members of the military, giving them an effective veto on constitutional reform, and undermining the clout of Suu Kyi’s NLD or the ethnic parties no matter how much they win.

But a big win for the ethnic parties could also prove a headache for Suu Kyi’s party when the new Parliament picks a president, with at least the NLD and the military-aligned USDP likely to put up candidates.

A bloc of 21 ethnic parties has already been formed, and those that win seats will likely agree on a presidential candidate, Sai Ai Pao said.

At the heart of negotiations over which presidential candidate to support will likely be the long-standing demand of ethnic parties to devolve power from the center to regions that have been plagued by insurgencies for decades.

Suu Kyi’s NLD in principle favors a move to some form of federalism, but party spokesman Nyan Win told Reuters that—despite its criticisms of the military—the Shan minority’s party “is not our friend.”

The White Tiger and some other ethnic parties have in the past been comfortable dealing with junta stalwarts, and they took part in a 2010 election that was boycotted by the NLD, which saw it as rigged by the military.

For the ruling USDP, dealing with ethnic parties on their devolution demand is not out of the question.

Party General Secretary Htay Oo said the USDP shared the military’s concern that granting more autonomy to ethnic minority-dominated regions could lead to instability.

“But as for our level of concern, it’s not as high as theirs,” he said, referring to the NLD.