The Irrawaddy

Myanmar’s Ethnic Parties Find Strength in Unity as They Prepare for General Election

YANGON—The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has already made moves to choose candidates for the upcoming general election, which is expected to take place in November. Many ethnic parties from the ethnic states are also preparing for the election, including issuing calls for candidacy applications.

The Irrawaddy spoke to the leaders of the strongest ethnic parties in Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Karen and Kayah states about their preparations and strategies for the election, and about the agenda of the alliance the ethnic parties have formed.

Except for the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), most parties within ethnic groups have merged together ahead of the upcoming 2020 election, putting on a united front in the hope of winning majorities in their state parliaments, and of claiming most of the national Parliament seats in their states. Their ultimate aim is to triumph over the NLD, as they believe the party hasn’t brought satisfactory development or improvements to their respective ethnic states. Moreover, the merged parties in Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Mon and Chin states have formed a coalition board and announced their solidarity in the 2020 election. They have agreed to form an alliance and seek to form a coalition government with other ethnic parties, or any groups that can guarantee ethnic rights and seek to form federal states in 2020.

Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) 

Gumgrawng Awng Hkam

Vice Chair

Members of the KSPP attend the opening ceremony of the party’s office in Myitkyina, Kachin State on June 22, 2019. / KSPP

“We are still choosing the candidates. We will contest 18 townships, which means we will run in all the constituencies in Kachin State. When it comes to choosing the candidates, our party is mainly focused on what the related constituencies propose to us. And the Central Executive Committee will make the final decision. We have opened the door to young people and also prioritize women in choosing candidates. The final decision is expected to be made in July, but it may be earlier than that.

“The KSPP’s main rival in Kachin would be the NLD and Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP]. We cannot foresee which party will win the majority of seats in our state. But, I can say that this time it is different. We—all six major Kachin parties—have merged… to become the KSPP. The move was pushed by the Kachin people with the aim of being a stronger contender in the 2020 elections. Our party not only represents the Kachin people but also all the ethnic residents in our state.

“The USDP already ran the country for five years. And the NLD has run it for nearly five years now. So, we have already seen their qualifications and capabilities, especially for how they run the country. We had high hopes for the NLD. But nothing has happened…. They did not make a significant move to form a federal Union, the peace process is deadlocked, the country’s economy has seen a significant slowdown and they even failed to protect press freedom.

“So, we expect to form a coalition government with other ethnic parties or whoever can guarantee ethnic rights and to form federal states in 2020. We are well prepared for it. It is very important for the ethnic parties to win [a majority] in the election. So, victory would grant us more authority to improve our rights. We hope to get a chance to focus on achieving peace, forming a federal Union and amending the 2008 Constitution.

“I believe the best to way to tackle the current obstacles in the country is to have a coalition government. It will give us a chance to solve and identify all the problems together. It could either be between major parties [for example the NLD] and ethnic parties…. or just between ethnic parties.”

Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD)

Sai Leik

General Secretary and Spokesperson

SNLD leaders greet members of the public at an event to mark the 30th anniversary of the party’s founding. / SNLD

“We have formed candidate scrutinizing committees at the township level. Later, we will have state level [committees]. After that they will submit candidacy applications to the head office. All party members who have been in the party for at least six months can apply as a candidate. If the qualifications are the same, we will prefer young people and women. Meanwhile, we cannot say for sure how many constituencies we will contest because the Union Election Commission [UEC] has yet to announce [its list]. In 2015, they eliminated two constituencies from the electoral contest when the election was just around the corner. We will surely win the constituencies we won in the 2015 election. The SNLD has also prepared very well to win in all the other places and reinforce our activities in those areas.

“We ethnic people long for self-determination, justice and peace. We all want a federal Union and our aim is to achieve that goal. I hope that all the ethnic people in Shan believe in us and vote for us.”

Arakan National Party (ANP) 

Daw Aye Nu Sein

Vice Chair

A signboard for the ANP in Gwa Township, southern Rakhine State. / ANP

“We will finalize the full list of our candidates in the coming month. The ANP decided to run in all the constituencies in Rakhine, and some constituencies in Ayeyarwady Region, especially for the ethnic affairs minister position. Just like other parties, we prefer young people and women as candidates. But under the actual conditions, we have a lot of young people but women candidates are hard to find.

“We have decided to contest in all places, but the decision on which places in Rakhine are not open to be contested will come from the UEC. Meanwhile, we have not yet heard anything from the UEC on whether the election can take place in all the constituencies in Rakhine. The truth is, Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Myebon, Ann and even some places in Sittwe have security problems [due to clashes between Myanmar army troops and the Arakan Army]. Locals are displaced from their homes. Some people are living in IDP camps; some don’t even have a place to return to because their villages burned down.

“These circumstances pose a security challenge for both voters and officers at the polling stations. Another challenge is COVID-19. We  have already found a total of seven cases in Maungdaw and Buthidaung. The most important thing is that almost all of them are people who illegally entered the country. So, it is hard to trace their contacts. That means COVID-19 could spread and emerge at any time in other places in Rakhine.

“Before thinking about how many [constituencies] we can win, we must consider whether the election can take place in Rakhine. The government has full responsibility for seeing that peace prevails and for maintaining security in the state. The election can only be held where conditions are peaceful. All they need to do is to seek political settlements with ethnic armed groups.

“I hope they won’t play any more blame games with the other stakeholders. So, we all need to find solutions together on how to move the peace process forward. I believe that the Rakhine party will win as long as Rakhine people maintain their awareness of politics and nationalism.”

Mon Unity Party (MUP)

U Ngwe Thein

Vice Chair

Members of the MUP attend a ceremony to mark the opening of the party’s office in Yangon. / MUP

“Selection of candidates for the 2020 election is under way. We will contest not only in Mon State but also Karen State, and Bago and Yangon regions. All the township party committees will choose the candidates at the end of this month. After that, they will submit them to the central committee and we will make the final decision.

“According to the current candidacy submissions, we have a small number of women. But we want more women candidates and will ask the townships to choose more. We will run in at least two constituencies in Bago and Yangon.

“We hope to win the elections in major townships, especially Hpa-An and Kawkareik in Karen State, and Kyaikto, Bilin and Thaton in Mon. Many Mon people voted for the NLD in 2015 with high expectations. But now, the people are growing disappointed with the NLD for failing to make Myanmar a federal Union. We are running out of patience with the NLD, as they failed to represent us. In particular, they have rarely talked about ethnic rights during their term.

“I am sure that they will also choose candidates from among Mon people, but many of us already know that those are people who only listen to their superiors. They have to listen to the central level first, before they do anything. They can carry out something only after the higher level instructs them to do so. The NLD seems to be drifting away from the people, so the people are starting not to trust them.”

Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD)

U Ngai Sak

Chairman

Members of the CNLD poses for a group photo at a ceremony to mark the opening of the party’s office in Hakha, Chin State. / CNLD

“For the time being, we cannot hold public meetings because of COVID-19. But, we are currently accepting candidate submission forms at the township level. The deadline for the candidacy applications is June 27. The township level committees will scrutinize the forms and must send their decisions to the Central Executive Committee [CEC] by July 19. The final decision from the CEC will be announced on July 25 or at the end of that month.

We have so many criteria for the candidates. All of the candidates who will contest the election in all nine townships in Chin State must be ethnic Chin people. If they [previously belonged to] other parties like the NLD, he or she must officially resign from that party. If potential candidates’ qualifications are the same, we will prioritize women candidates.

“We will run in all the constituencies in Chin State. Moreover, we plan to contest in Magwe, Rakhine and Sagaing for the ethnic affairs minister positions. But in Rakhine, we have to wait and see because of security issues. We are confident that we will win at least 60 percent of seats in the state parliament and also win the majority of [Chin State’s] seats in the Upper and Lower houses [of the Union Parliament].

“Our main goal is to achieve self-determination and equal rights, and to form a federal Union. At the state level, we will try, for the unity of the Chin people, to implement basic infrastructure that will benefit the Chin people politically, economically and socially.

“We will try to revive the Chin identity, as the NLD and USDP failed to do. We will promote our culture, literature and traditional values. We will enact laws to promote the rights of Chin women. The most important thing is to make a corruption-free state. If we can form a government at the state level, we will create a corruption-free government. If we win the majority of seats in the state parliament, we can act to provide checks and balances on the state government and push them…to be free from corruption.

“We firmly believe that ethnic parties must be united in order to take a stronger stand. For the coalition government, we [the ethnic parties] will need to hold wide-ranging discussions after the 2020 election.”

Karen National Democratic Party (KNDP)

Mann Aung Pyi Soe

Vice Chair

Members of the KNDP attend the opening ceremony for the party’s office in Hpa-an Township, Karen State. / KNDP

“We have already selected the candidates at the township level. The central executive level still has to make the final decisions. We will announce the list of candidates at the end of July or in the first week of August. The KNDP will contest in at least six townships in Karen State and some in Mon State where many Karen people are living; we have agreed with other ethnic parties not to compete with each other in individual townships, to avoid splitting the vote.

“So far, we can’t say that we will win all the seats. We will try our best. Everyone knows that there is still a lack of equal rights and self-determination for ethnic people.

“Our party is a merger between the four Karen parties. As the ethnic Karen party, we believe that the ceasefire agreement actually does not guarantee long-lasting peace. We believe that we cannot expect long-lasting peace as long as ethnic people lack self-determination and equal rights. So, all the merged parties in Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Mon and Chin have formed a coalition board, and we have agreed to make alliances with other ethnic parties to form a coalition government.

“By doing so, we will have a chance to set our own goals and have our voices heard. For example, if the USDP wins 20 percent of seats—and they [their military allies] already have 25 percent held by army appointees—they will need more seats to form a government. So, we will invite them…. to compromise and work with us and form a coalition government. We could even decide to work with them, because our only goal is to make Myanmar a federal Union.”

Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP)

U Sai Naing Naing Htwe

Vice Chair-2

The KySDP’s office in Hpruso Township, Kayah State. / KySDP

“The process of selecting candidates for the 2020 election is still under way. We are scrutinizing the details of proposed candidate forms. We will also wait and see how the situation develops, because the UEC has not yet announced the date of the election.

“We will run in all the constituencies in Kayah. Our main goal is to build a political system for the sake of the Kayah [Karenni] people. People in Kayah should vote for the Kayah ethnic parties in order to have the right to create our own future. We are preparing to build the basic infrastructure that will support improvements in the social and economic conditions of the Kayah people.

“So far, people in Kayah fully support Kayah parties, as they believe we will reflect their voices, carry out their will and work for their benefit. We have already joined an alliance with other ethnic parties—Kachin, Karen, Chin and Mon—as we have the same goals: to build a federal Union, and self-determination. We will work together to reach our goals.”