The news of Dr. Aye Maung’s electoral success in Ann Township, Rakhine State, in the April 1 by-election came as a complete surprise for many political observers who live far from the area. Putting aside judgments on partisan politics and values, and employing a closer, hands-on observation will certainly reveal that the once-beaten party leader deserves the success at this time.
I have written in a previous article that his bid to run for election in Ann Township was a reckless venture. While that statement held true to the last minute, closer observation reveals that a mix of factors influenced his victory. On a superficial level, most commentators will readily attribute this triumph to the rise of Rakhine ethno-nationalism.
Though ethno-national sentiment definitely leverages his success, there are other important factors that gave rise to the victory of Dr. Aye Maung.
Aggressive and Careful Campaign Efforts
As the leader of the powerful, ethnic Arakan National Party (ANP), the shameful loss in Manaung Township in the 2015 general election must have incurred a sense of insecurity in him and in his party. Considering that feeling, his decision to run in Ann Township for a Pyithu Hluttaw seat amazed Rakhine’s political watchers. It was risky business. Dr. Aye Maung must have been stupid to be oblivious to this situation, but he was not.
In order to overcome the challenge, he gathered a large force of volunteers. Providing him with a persistent flow of workhands was one of his old allies from Taungup who lost to the rivals of National League for Democracy (NLD) during the 2015 election. The general secretary of the party and ANP Union lawmakers joined him for days and nights. Young politicians from Ann Township combined forces to navigate his campaign’s direction. Individual supporters from almost all of the townships in Rakhine State arrived at Ann Township to make sure Dr. Aye Maung got a chance. He spent two months of the campaign period wisely and effectively on the ground, quite contrary to what he did in Manaung in 2015.
He likened his campaign strategy to that of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) during an interview. He spent several days visiting the outlaying villages to gauge voters’ alignment before embarking on the centers with big populations. During the final days of the campaign period, he tried to keep himself glued to his supporters. He was seen “only” in the region of his supporters—Ann region 2, where there are big population centers like Tat Taung Township, and villages Rue and Sachanmaw. This tactic is correct in that he was able to get the supporters out on election day. Campaign managers usually call this tactic ‘Get Out the Vote (GOTV).’ It is important that the supporting voters turn out at the polling stations. That is what matters to win an election—get your voters out.
In order to understand this dynamic, I interviewed some local political observers. They told me that during the concluding days of the campaign period, the NLD candidate and the USDP candidate spent less time on their supporter base and more on non-supporters. Although I have not independently verified that, if it is true then Dr. Aye Maung got his campaign strategy more correct than his opponents.
The interest in Ann Township election brought forth many international observers including foreign embassies. The reason behind this interest lays with Dr. Aye Maung, who they consider a hard liner—some even a rabble-rouser. Many people also think that the local interest that arose from this election was because of Dr. Aye Maung. As mentioned before, this article does not engage in value judgment of Dr. Aye Maung’s political outlook and his past activities, but intends to recognize that his name has become well-known (famous or notorious) locally and internationally.
That simple fact became more visible when his rivals tried to establish name recognition and failed. One international observer told me frankly that he came to observe the by-election in Ann Township because he wanted to see how Dr. Aye Maung would do. But he had to keep looking back at his notebook to remember the names of the other candidates. One local observer even told me that a singer from an NLD music concert did not remember the NLD candidate’s name.
Brand recognition is an important element in pushing a candidate to success and Dr. Aye Maung certainly enjoyed this advantage over his opponents during the by election.
The Spread of Ethnic Nationalism
This last factor serves as the backbone of Dr. Aye Maung’s success. But political watchers were unable to verify how much ethno-national sentiment had spread to Ann Township—a township that is seen generally on the periphery of Rakhine’s national domain. Ann people speak a dialect closer to Burmese and they recognize the people from Sittwe as Rakhine people, as if they are not Rakhine. Whether that sentiment has changed and to what extent remains to be researched and verified. But Rakhine nationalists have already celebrated the spread of ethno-nationalist sentiments to Ann Township through this by-election.
One can realize that the 2012 communal conflict in Rakhine State has injected a revived dose of national sentiment to communities living across the state’s different townships. The feeling of insecurity, imagined or real, due to the “presence of foreigners” has connected the people in Rakhine State. It is tantamount to conclude that they came to express this feeling through their electoral rights. And Dr. Aye Maung is not hesitant to capitalize on the changing dynamics of the political landscape. He exhibited electoral talent and his supporters were quick to act. For these reasons, he deserves this success regardless of his political stance.
Aung Myo Oo is a native of Sittwe and an active commentator on social media about political activities in Rakhine State. He received a Master of Human Rights and Democratization from the University of Sydney.