Opposition Party Courts Women Candidates

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 20 July 2015

RANGOON — When Burma’s voters head to the polls in November, they will see an unprecedented number of women on the ballot. As an Aug. 8 deadline approaches for parties to finalize their lists of candidates, it is not yet known how many women will contest, but aspiring female lawmakers are already coming out of the woodwork.

The country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is chaired by a woman: Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. While the party has only recently committed to taking part in the polls and has yet to finalize its list of candidates, The Irrawaddy tracked down four well-known women who plan to join the ticket.

All four potential candidates still have to undergo an approval process from their constituency’s NLD chapter, then the party’s central committee. Several of them, including a sitting member of the Rangoon Divisional Parliament, Nyo Nyo Thin, have been invited by the party to campaign in their corner.

“I was invited by the NLD to run in the election earlier this year,” she told The Irrawaddy. After careful consideration, she finally decided to contest a seat in the Lower House for her Rangoon constituency.

As a member of the divisional Parliament, she has earned a reputation as something of a fighter. Nyo Nyo Thin said she hopes to enter national politics to advance reforms and make the country more progressive.

During her five years as a state legislator—she was elected as an independent in the 2010 elections, which the NLD boycotted—she hasn’t always been successful in pushing through her agenda or stopping motions she disliked. Her stance on controversial development projects, however, made her popular among residents of the city.

Nyo Nyo Thin’s opposition to a proposed Rangoon City Expansion Plan—which was initially shelved and later resurrected by the divisional government—earned her much popular support despite her failure to stop the project. As the sole dissenting voice about the project, Nyo Nyo Thin told her colleagues that the divisional government should instead channel efforts into developing the city’s existing, sparsely populated satellite towns.

She said that, if elected, she will carry the same ideals to the national chambers, and fight with every bit as much vigor about issues affecting the Burmese public.

“It’s still too early to say what we will want to accomplish, but as a lawmaker in the Rangoon Parliament we faced a lot of land issues around the city,” she said, when asked about her ambitions. “People don’t have certainty in their land ownership; I would focus more on this.”

Moreover, she said the NLD’s economic policy was “still weak,” which is something she would like to improve on if nominated and elected as an NLD member.

“I can’t make promises for the whole country, but I know what to do to make Yangon’s economy strong,” she said.

Shwe Shwe Sein Latt is also vying for a spot on the NLD ticket. She has never before been a member of the party, though she has built a strong reputation as a champion of women’s rights through her years as founder and director of Phan Tee Ein (Creative House), a grassroots organization that works to rehabilitate the lives of women who have suffered from sexual violence.

“I have never been a member of the NLD before, but some members encouraged me to run in the election for the party. I was invited this month and I accepted,” she said, forecasting that she will likely contest a seat in Dike Oo Township of Pegu Division.

Phan Tee Ein has recently broadened its scope to offer leadership training for vulnerable women, allowing participants to network both within Burma and abroad. This work, she said, demonstrates her commitment to women’s empowerment, a theme she hopes to bring into the nation’s grossly lopsided legislature. But while Shwe Shwe Sein Latt wants to advance an agenda strong on women’s issues, it’s not her top priority at the moment. Like many of her peers and colleagues, she said her number one priority is achieving constitutional reform.

“It’s still early,” she said, reluctant to divulge her political ambitions in detail, “but I would like to participate in constitutional reform [efforts] first, then my aspiration to achieve equal rights for men and women by democratic practices.”

In terms of how she might create a more gender just society, Shwe Shwe Sein Latt said she would focus on extending more job opportunities for women, so they can support themselves. Pointing out that the female population in Burma is greater than that of men, she said that she would initially aim to create more jobs for women, and gradually increase their median income.

Zin Mar Aung is another prominent women’s rights advocate, and the cofounder of the Yangon School of Political Science. She said she had petitioned the party for a nomination of her own accord because she believes that more strong democratic voices in the Parliament will eventually be able to bring about big changes, such as charter reform. Zin Mar Aung said she plans to run in Rangoon’s North Okkalapa Township for the Lower House.

Beyond her ambition to ultimately bring about constitutional change, Zin Mar Aung is also passionate about youth and development. If elected, she said, “I would like to do more for youth development projects based on education.”

Zin Mar Aung said the NLD is expected to release their final list of candidates by the end of the month, once all township and divisional party officials have come to consensus and sought approval from the central committee. Another big name that is expected to appear on the list is Susanna Hla Hla Soe, a well-known ethnic Karen activist and director of the Karen Women’s Action Group (KWAG). She is expected to run in Rangoon’s Insein and Mingalardon townships for the Upper House, though she said it was still “too early” to discuss her plans in detail.

Several of Burma’s political parties are actively seeking more women as candidates to combat the country’s tremendous gender imbalance in politics. Burma’s record on women’s participation in governance is among the worst in the region, as less than six percent of elected lawmakers at the national level are women. Burma fares even worse at the sub-national level, under four percent.