YANGON— Homegrown political parties in Myanmar’s ethnic areas have been merging together in the hope of winning a majority of seats in both national and regional parliaments in the upcoming 2020 general elections, a victory that would grant them more authority to improve their rights.
So far, apart from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, political parties in four out of eight of Myanmar’s major ethnic groups have merged.
The results of the 2015 general election were a major lesson for the ethnic parties; disunity among them and the stunning NLD victory resulted in their holding a mere 11 percent of seats in the national legislature.
In 2015, 91 political parties contested for seats out of which 64 percent, or 59 parties, represented ethnic minority parties. Most major ethnic groups—the Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Mon and Karen—were represented by at least two parties each.
Because of splitting votes, there was a decline of 4 percent in seats held by members of ethnic parties compared to the 2010 election, which was held under the military regime.
Instead of competing against each other, many of the smaller ethnic parties have decided to amalgamate in a bid to win more seats in the 2020 general election. In fact, they ultimately aim to triumph over the NLD as they believe the party doesn’t bring satisfactory development or improvements in their respective ethnic states.
The merging process started after the NLD came to power, but initially proved difficult due to the many different political views and ambitions at the core of the different parties. When ethnic people became dissatisfied with the NLD’s efforts in the peace process and forming a federal system however, they put more pressure on their homegrown political parties to combine.
After two and half years of the NLD in power, political parties of Myanmar’s different major ethnic groups— the Karen, Kachin, Kayah, Mon and Chin— have officially announced their solidarity in the run for the 2020 elections.
Chin parties have been working to merge since 2016 after a dissatisfactory 2015 election saw no Chin party win any seat in either the regional or national parliament. In July 2017, the Chin National Democratic Party (CNDP) and the Chin Progressive Party (CPP) agreed to combine as one “Chin National Congress.”
This year, a third political party from Chin State, the Chin League for Democracy (CLD), has set its sights on joining the duo. The three Chin-based parties are to combine in the coming months under a new name, “Chin National League for Democracy.”
“Chin parties need to consolidate for greater effectiveness. We aim to win a majority of seats in the 2020 election,” Chin National Democratic party (CNDP) secretary, Salai Ceu Bik Thawng told The Irrawaddy.
“We accept the concept of having one party that represents one ethnic group,” he said.
“We [Chin] voted for the NLD in 2015 because we thought they would create policies to defend ethnic rights and form federal states. After getting involved in the peace process, we have gradually come to understand that their stand for ethnic rights is weak. The Chin people realize that the NLD can’t guarantee their rights. They want to see more support for the Chin parties so they are pushing us to unite,” he added.
In Chin State’s 2015 election, the regional parliament saw the NLD win 12 seats, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won four seats and the Zomi Congress for Democracy (ZCD) two seats. The NLD won seven seats and the ZCD two seats in the Lower House and in the Upper House, the NLD won nine seats, USDP two seats and ZCD two seats.
Recently, four Kachin parties—the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP), the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), the Kachin National Congress (KNC) and the Union and Democracy Party of Kachin State (UDPKS) made the decision to merge. The new party has been named “Kachin State Party” and aims to be a stronger contender in the 2020 elections.
In the 2015 elections, the KSDP was the only Kachin party to win seats in the parliament—one seat in Lower House and three in the regional parliament. The NLD won a majority of seats in Kachin regional parliaments.
Central committee member of the newly founded Kachin State Party and former chairperson of KDP Aung Kham said, “Our [newly founded] party will represent all the Kachin people. We hope to form a coalition government with the other ethnic parties or whoever can guarantee ethnic rights and to form federal states in 2020.”
The Kachin State Party expects to contest all the Kachin constituencies in 2020, Aung Kham said, “If parties representing the other ethnic groups in Kachin State want to contest the 2020 election we will collaborate with them. We won’t allow a split in the vote.”
A number of major Karen political parties also believe that consolidation will be rewarded with victory in the 2020 election. In February, four Karen political parties— the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party, the Karen Democratic Party, the Karen State Democracy and Development Party and the Karen National Democratic Party—merged to form the new party, “Karen National Democratic Party (KNDP).”
Two other Karen parties—the Karen Peoples’ Party, which is based in Yangon, and the Karen National Party based in Irrawaddy Region—did not merge with the new group.
A vice chairman of the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party (PSDP), one of Karen parties in the merger, Mann Aung Pyi Soe told The Irrawaddy, “I don’t want to mention what the NLD is doing for our rights because Karen already understand it. As a result, the Karen people urged us to merge. We have merged because of their will.”
“We hope that at least we will get a majority of seats in the regional parliament in the 2020 election so we can perform effectively for Karen rights,” he said.
“During election canvassing, the NLD told [voters] they only need to look to the [NLD] party, and not to look to the Person [candidates]. But this time, we will push our people to look to those with talents and capability to make changes, not to the party,” he added.
In 2015, the NLD won a majority of seat in Karen State, while the Kayin Peoples’ Party won only one seat in the regional parliament.
In July, two Mon parties— the All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP) and the Mon National Party (MNP) also decided to merge to form a new political party for the 2020 elections. The merger agreed to the name “Mon Party” and will celebrate their joining as one party this month.
In the 2015 elections, the AMRDP and the MNP won a total of only four seats in the regional parliament while the NLD holds the majority.
In Kayah State, in 2017, the Kayah Unity Democracy party and the All Nationals’ Democracy Party decided to merge with the aim of establishing federalism in the region through the peace process under their new party named “Kayah State Democratic Party.”
However, some major ethnic political parties will not be able to merge in the future due to different perspectives in politics, agendas and some internal conflicts among them.
In Shan State, there are two major political parties–the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Shan Nationalities Democracy Party (SNDP). Despite the SNLD being the most popular party among Shan people, the USDP was victorious in the 2015 election. The SNLD holds 24 seats, the NLD 21 seats and the SNDP one seat in the regional parliament. But experts have said that the SNLD and the SNDP political stances are different so they won’t consolidate for the next elections.
Two Rakhine parties— the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD) and the Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) merged in 2014 under the name “Arakan National Party” (ANP) with the aim of working together for the Rakhine people. They were the earliest merger to be formed among the ethnic political parties. However, the parties separated in 2017 due to what was said to be unfair decision-making and internal conflicts between two party members.
In the 2015 election, the NLD won 77 percent of seats, which was a landslide victory as voted by a population starved of change and democracy under the military dictatorship for almost five decades.
However, during the last two years, Daw Aung Suu Kyi’s government has come under criticism for delaying reforms and development processes, an unsuccessful and vague peace procedure, the crackdown on media and attracting pressure from human rights groups over the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine States.
Many former supporters from ethnic groups have revealed that the NLD administration fails to listen to their voices and works against their will, especially regarding ethnic rights. Ethnic people have pointed out ongoing civil wars in Kachin and Shan states which have actually seen the number of IDPs increase under the NLD government. Moreover, the NLD regional government last year named a bridge in Mon State “Aung San Bridge”—after the national independence hero and late father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—against the will of Mon people.
Despite objections, NLD supporters, including some regional authorities, have also erected statues of Aung San in Kachin and Chin states while a number of youths opposing such a statue in Kayah State are currently on trial for their protests against the plan to erect a similar statue in Loikaw.
The 2017 by-elections were a wake-up call for the NLD government, which won only half of the 19 seats while the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) won six seats and the USDP won two.
Though the by-election results don’t change the country’s administration, it was a warning bell for the NLD government showing they have not been able to garner much support from the ethnic nationalities.
By combining, many ethnic parties hope to achieve more for their respective states and regions.
The ethnic political contenders believe there will three clear runners for the 2020 elections— the NLD, the combined ethnic parties and the military-backed USDP and their alliance parties.
Despite the ethnic party’s preparation for the 2020 general election, some ambitious ethnic parties, like the Chin and Kachin, believe that to win a majority of seats in both the regional and national parliament, they may form a coalition government with the NLD or an ethnic party who guarantees to form federal states via a long-lasting peace process.
“In 2020, one party cannot form a government. The NLD will be a winner in Burmese-dominated constituencies but ethnic parties will have more chances for votes in ethnic states because [the NLD] didn’t fulfill the promises they made to ethnic people in 2015,” said Salai Ceu Bik Thawng.
“We will have a coalition government in 2020,” he added.