As Myanmar’s Election Approaches, Former Military Officials Hope to Rebound in Naypyitaw

By Htet Naing Zaw 2 November 2020

Ex-generals from the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) expect to gain a foothold again in Naypyitaw though they lost to the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the Union Territory in the 2015 election and had to hand over power.

In the 2010 election conducted by the military regime, ex-generals from the USDP won all the seats in the administrative capital. There are eight Lower House seats and two Upper House seats up for grabs in Naypyitaw.

Civil servants, military personnel and their families make up the majority of the population in Naypyitaw, and according to the Union Election Commission (UEC), the city has a population of over 1 million. Some 860,000 people are eligible to cast votes in the November election.

In the 2010 election, which was boycotted by the NLD, ex-General Thein Sein won in Zabuthiri and was elected President. Ex-General Shwe Mann won in Zeyarthiri and was elected Lower House speaker. And ex-General Tin Aung Myint Oo won in Pobbathiri and was elected vice-president.

But in 2015 balloting, the USDP lost in all constituencies except in Zeyarthiri Township, where most Myanmar military units are concentrated. The USDP won by a margin of more than 15,000 votes there.

USDP chair U Than Htay, who succeeded U Thein Sein after his retirement, is himself running for a Lower House seat in Zeyarthiri this year. He competed in his native Ayeyarwady’s Myanaung Township in 2015 voting, but lost to the NLD candidate.

U Than Htay graduated from the No. 18 intake of the Defense Services Academy, and retired as brigadier general to join the USDP ahead of the 2010 election. He won in the 2012 by-election representing Myanaung and served as minister for energy and railways in the U Thein Sein administration.

Former Lieutenant General U Myint Hlaing told The Irrawaddy, “The generals do not come from above.”

In Myanmar, military personnel are often criticized as “moe-kya-shwe-ko”, meaning they move from the military to take top-level jobs in the civilian administration even though they have no specific knowledge or expertise about the positions they take. The term was coined in the era of the “socialist” regime when military dictator Ne Win put his personnel in the administration to ensure his grip of the country.

USDP chairman U Than Htay. / Thiha Lwin / The Irrawaddy

“We have a lot of experience because we rose through the ranks from lieutenant. Naypyitaw is our fortress,” said U Myint Hlaing.

U Myint Hlaing served as the minister for agriculture and irrigation under the U Thein Sein administration and lost to the NLD in 2015’s election. He now expects that the USDP will win at least 50 percent of the seats in Naypyitaw.

“There are eight townships in Naypyitaw, and we expect we will win in at least four townships. We are sure to win in Pobbathiri and Zeyarthiri townships. And as I myself am contesting in Dekkhinathiri, I am 100 percent sure I will win there,” U Myint Hlaing said.

The USDP is focusing on Naypyitaw because it is the Union Territory under the direct control of the President and where the USDP is headquartered.

“I think we are doing better. Because civil servants make up a large share of Naypyitaw’s population, I think they will be able to think rationally and make sound choices. And so will the farmers and military personnel,” said U Myint Hlaing.

“Our chairman is very stable and can give cast-iron guarantees. He clearly states that the USDP would form a government that keeps its promises. Isn’t that encouraging?” he added.

The number of people who support the USDP has increased not only in Naypyitaw but also across the country with some NLD supporters switching sides, said the USDP’s Naypyitaw chapter spokeswoman Daw Yin Min Myint Swe.

“In Pobbathiri, some of the people who used to support the NLD said they would vote for us in November’s election. Some of them have even been actively engaged in the NLD. We expect to win 100 percent [in Pobbathiri]. We have prepared our best,” she said.

The USDP is strong in both Zeyarthiri and Pobbathiri townships. A former defense minister, ex-Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin, lost to the NLD candidate, poet and writer U Yi Mon, by 176 votes in the 2015 election. The two will go head-to-head again this year.

The Irrawaddy made several abortive efforts to interview U Wai Lwin through his assistants. According to sources close to him, he is angry at the news media for writing stories about him during the run-up to 2015’s vote, saying that he would lead a hermit’s life if he lost the election.

His rival U Yi Mon said that while it was a tightly contested race in 2015, this time it is much easier for him.

“That is because the public’s views have changed a lot. In particular, the public has a higher opinion of the NLD led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. So the competition will not be as tough as it was in 2015,” he said.

Pobbathiri Township is home to a large number of military units like Zeyarthiri Township, and the NLD was very lucky to win the 2015 vote by a narrow margin, said NLD Naypyitaw campaign committee member U Min Thu. However, the NLD will definitely win in Naypyitaw this year, he added.

“It is a must for the NLD to win all 10 seats in Naypyitaw in order to strengthen our democracy,” he said.

USDP candidate for Pobbathiri Township U Wai Lwin. / Thiha Lwin / The Irrawaddy

According to the NLD, the party lost in Zeyarthiri Township in 2015 because it was not able to send party representatives to polling stations to monitor voting or to monitor advance votes of military personnel and their families. In addition, there were more early votes than official voter lists in military polling stations and the civilian voter turnout was low.

“But now, since military voters have to vote outside their cantonment, if we can properly monitor the voting and ensure fair voting, there will be clear-cut results,” he said.

The NLD also won all four of the seats up for grabs in the 2012 by-election.

Besides the NLD and the USDP, the Union Betterment Party, the People’s Pioneer Party, the People’s Party, the National Democratic Force, the National Unity Party, the National United Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of National Politics, the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party and independent candidates will run for offices in Naypyitaw.

However, none of those other parties are serious rivals to the NLD and the USDP. Only those two parties have held mass rallies with thousands of supporters in Naypyitaw ahead of the Nov. 8 election. The Union Betterment Party (UBP) led by ex-General U Shwe Mann and the People’s Pioneer Party (PPP) led by Daw Thet Thet Khine have also attracted some degree of attention from voters.

U Shwe Mann himself is not competing in the November election, but the party has fielded candidates for all the seats in Naypyitaw.  Secretary U Tun Tun Oo of UBP’s Pyinmana chapter said, “We expect to win at least six seats in Naypyitaw.”

Daw Thet Thet Khine is a former NLD lawmaker. She founded the PPP after the NLD suspended her from duties in response to her remarks against party chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

PPP’s Pobbathiri Township candidate U Ye Htut Oo said, “U Wai Lwin is the strongest of all the candidates in our constituency, followed by U Yi Mon, and me. People have great interest in the PPP, and I think we can win because they expect changes.”

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko

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