Ignoring Ethnic Parties will Hurt NLD in 2020

By San Yamin Aung 10 July 2019

YANGON—The failure of Myanmar’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party to build healthy relationships with the country’s ethnic populations and their political parties could hurt the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led party in the general election next year, especially in ethnic states.

Political observers have noticed the NLD’s failure to honor the wishes of indigenous people in ethnic states. Offenses include naming a bridge in Mon State after General Aung San, the country’s late independence leader and father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, despite thousands of locals marching against it and petitioning both state and Union parliaments to reverse their decisions. Locals demanded a name celebrating ethnic Mon heritage and identity.

Another obvious example is the erecting of Gen. Aung San statues in several ethnic states amid mounting public opposition to each. Pushback has been especially strong in Kayah State, where activists are still protesting for the removal of a statue erected in Loikaw, the state capital, despite local authorities cracking down on protestors with lawsuits. The protestors say they have their own respected ethnic heroes to honor and see the Gen. Aung San statues as symbols of ongoing ethnic Burmese dominance.

Political observers have warned the NLD that these have all been big political missteps with ethnic communities that will lose them ethnic-area support in the elections and only make the task of achieving national reconciliation and unity more difficult.

Similarly frosty relations have developed between the NLD and its allied ethnic parties, which it had previously worked alongside while striking for democracy over many years.

People participate in the opening ceremony of the Gen. Aung San Bridge, held in May, 2017, which was attended by President U Win Myint, who was at that time Lower House Speaker. / Hintharnee / The Irrawaddy

U Myo Kyaw from the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), who is also a member of the secretary team of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA)—a political alliance of major ethnic political parties in Myanmar—said the NLD has changed its approach to its allied ethnic parties. The UNA comprises around 13 ethnic parties, including the ALD. For many years they worked together in opposition to the military junta.

He said that, back when the NLD was part of the opposition, they negotiated and held discussions with the ethnic parties in their collective fight against the military regime. But after they rose to power, he said, the NLD turned its back on its ethnic allies, eschewing consultation and engagement on key government appointments and issues in ethnic states.

“They haven’t held talks with us,” he said, adding that this approach will cause ethnic parties to lose faith in the NLD.

Before the 1990 elections, the NLD had allied with the United Nationalities League for Democracy, an alliance formed in 1988 and comprised of nearly two dozen ethnic parties, including parties in the UNA. They held talks and released a joint statement professing to work together for equality, autonomy, human rights and democracy. The NLD won those elections, but the results were annulled by the then-ruling military junta.

In the country’s 2010 elections, the NLD and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD)—an ally of the NLD since at least the 1990 election—were among several parties to boycot the elections, considering them not to be credible or fair.

After the 2015 general elections the NLD offered the SNLD a newly-created ethnic affairs minister position, but the SNLD rejected the offer upon learning that the position had nothing to do with the country’s peace process, which they’ve been focused on.

In a press conference last month, the SNLD said that their relationship between with the NLD has not been as warm as it once was.

“We can’t say ‘I love you’ when the other side is not even talking to us,” Sai Kyaw Nyut, a joint secretary of the SNLD, said when asked if his party had a plan to ally with the NLD in the upcoming general elections.

Upper House lawmaker Ma Htoot May, from the ALD, said ethnic parties expected the NLD to work together with them as they share the same goal—a democratic federal union—but it didn’t happen.

If the NLD has absolute faith in federal democracy, she said, allying with ethnic parties should be a priority.

NLD spokesperson U Myo Nyunt said that the party is considering adopting a policy for developing better relations with ethnic parties before the elections.

“We always want to work together with ethnic parties. Our policy is to cooperate with them as we share the same goals,” he said.

Yet, in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Vice President of the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said his party doesn’t think it could work with the NLD as they have never seen the NLD have that kind of willingness to unite.

Three Kachin parties—the Kachin Democratic Party, the Kachin State Democracy Party and the Union and Democracy Party of Kachin State—merged to form the KSPP with the aim of increasing their chances of winning in both state and national parliaments.

Ehnic Karenni women hold National League for Democracy party flags as they wait for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrival to give a speech at Hsiseng Township in Shan State on September 5, 2015. / Reuters

Currently, there are 98 political parties registered with the election commission and it is expected that more than 100 political parties will ultimately compete in the national election. There were over 90 political parties in the 1990 election and 93 parties in the 2015 election.

While the NLD remains the most popular party nationwide, especially in areas with a majority ethnic Burman population, there are also more or less a dozen long-established ethnic parties that have popular strongholds in their states.

Even in the 2015 elections, in which the NLD won in a landslide, more than 80 percent of contested seats were in ethnic areas, and ethnic parties won majorities in Shan and Rakhine states.

“In 2015, people—including ethnic people—voted in solidarity with them, expecting they would make reforms [toward a democratic transition] nationwide,” said Ma Htoot May said.

But the lawmaker said the NLD has failed to listen to the wishes of ethnic people in its attempted reform implementations over the past three years.

The writing is on the wall for the NLD, as seen in the 2017 by-elections—held soon after the naming of the bridge in Mon State. The party lost in the state’s Chaungzon Township, where they had won in 2015—and to their rival USDP no less. The party didn’t even garner half the votes it had received in 2015.

In the 2018 by-elections, the NLD also lost six out of 13 contested seats, including four it won in 2015—three seats to the USDP in Yangon and Sagaing regions and in Kachin State and another to the local Chin National League for Democracy in Chin State.

Ma Htoot May said the likelihood of ethnic parties winning in the upcoming elections has increased.

“I expect ethnic parties will see more victories in 2020 [than in 2015],” she said.

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