Myanmar’s Ethnic Parties Dismiss NLD’s Ethnic Affairs Committee as Pre-Election Ploy

By Zarni Mann 24 September 2019

MANDALAY – The ruling National League for Democracy’s (NLD) recent move to establish an Ethnic Affairs Committee has been criticized as proof that the party has embarked on a strategy of competing with ethnic parties, and is not genuinely interested in working with them on issues of importance to the country’s ethnic communities.

The NLD announced at a press conference following Sunday’s meeting of its Central Executive Committee that it had established an Ethnic Affairs Committee, to be chaired by U Inhtwanga Naw Seng from Kachin State.

The committee members include Karen State Chief Minister Daw Nan Khin Htwe Myint and Rakhine State Chief Minister U Nyi Pu. The party said the committee would be expanded later to include ethnic members from other states and divisions.

At the press conference, NLD vice president U Zaw Myint Maung admitted that establishing the Ethnic Affairs Committee was part of a strategy for next year’s general election.

“We need to overcome the power of the ethnic parties, which are merging within [their respective] ethnic regions to compete in the upcoming election. We established this committee to recruit more ethnic people into our party and work on ethnic affairs,” U Zaw Myint Maung said at the press conference.

Ethnic party leaders said the establishment of the committee was a purely political move targeting the ethnic vote.

“We’re not impressed with their ideas, for we know that the committee is just for show to woo ethnic voters, to win their votes in the upcoming election,” U Pe Than, a Lower House lawmaker for the Arakan National Party (ANP) representing Rakhine State’s Myabon Constituency, told The Irrawaddy.

The lawmaker said the NLD had shown no interest in making alliances with ethnic parties, and sought only to increase its own ethnic membership to compete in the election.

“When we were struggling to uproot the military junta and government, the NLD joined hands with the ethnic parties, but now that they have power, they don’t want us at all, and they want to be a competitor instead,” he said.

“We see no trace of respect for the ethnic parties [on the part of the NLD], or any sign of interest in cooperating [with us] in the upcoming election to help them win and follow the right path of democracy and forming a federalist state,” he added.

To the contrary, ethnic party leaders say, the NLD has neglected the country’s ethnic people. They point to the statues of General Aung San that have been erected in ethnic regions against the wishes of local communities.

“Even ex-President U Thein Sein used to ask the ethnic parties or ethnic leaders for their opinions. But the NLD has done nothing like this since forming the government. And erecting the Gen. Aung San statues without discussing them with us shows the NLD does nothing for the ethnic people,” said U Ngai Sa, president of the Chin Nationalities Democracy Party. “We feel neglected.”

Flawed strategy

The NLD’s plan to boost the numbers of ethnic people in its ranks by forming the Ethnic Affairs Committee will not work, ethnic leaders warned.

Ethnic parties based in the ethnic regions are consolidating, with a number of parties having merged to form larger ethnic parties in recent months. The Kachin State People Party, Mon Unity Party, Karen National Democratic Party, Kayah State Democratic Party and Chin National League for Democracy all plan to compete in the upcoming general election in 2020.

Political analysts said the NLD’s plan to compete with the ethnic parties rather than work with them was ill advised, as support for the ethnic parties is very strong in their respective regions.

“Rather than competing with the ethnic parties, the NLD should build a better relationship with them and make alliances with them. It also needs to negotiate with them so they can work together on the sectors in which they share the same objectives,” said U Maung Maung Soe, an ethnic affairs analyst.

The analyst said the NLD’s relationship with the ethnic parties was strained at present, as ethnic people have lost trust in the NLD and view it as a chauvinist party.

He pointed to the example of the Ethnic Affairs Ministry, which was formed under the NLD government and is widely viewed as dysfunctional and ineffective.

“Contrary to expectations, we’ve found that the party does not handle ethnic issues well,” U Maung Maung Soe said.

“If the NLD wants to work effectively on ethnic issues, [forming] the Ethnic Affairs Committee alone will not work, unless it has a policy to form alliances with the ethnic parties and come to agreements on how they can work together for the future,” he added.

Political analyst Dr. Yan Myo Thein said the NLD should meet with the ethnic parties and ethnic leaders before the 2020 election if it wants to tackle ethnic issues.

“The NLD should not compete with the ethnic parties in the upcoming election, but should make alliances and work together on sectors in which the NLD and the ethnic parties have the same objectives,” he said.

The analyst said the party should not act as if it were the only political party representing all nationalities in the Union, but should try to build trust among ethnic people, their leaders and their parties.

“If the NLD really cares about ethnic affairs, it should meet with the strong ethnic parties, the ethnic leaders, the local elders and ethnic society groups to built trust, not compete with them,” he said.

The analyst warned that if the NLD failed to review the lessons of the past few years and continued to compete with the ethnic parties rather than making alliances with them, it would suffer at the ballot box in the upcoming election.

“There were cases during the by-election in 2018 where Union Solidarity and Development Party candidates won seats that the Kachin ethnic party and the NLD competed for. The NLD should review its actions in recent years and learn the lessons,” he said.