As 8 November nationwide election draws nearer, the speculation, on how the ethnic political parties would fare and simultaneously able to address and achieve their people’s aspirations, have been pushed further to the forefront, at least for the non-Bamar ethnic population, if not the whole length and breadth of the country.
Generally speaking, the political clout of the ethnic parties have not been considered to be such an important deciding factor in national-level political configuration. Regarding contemporary political development, domestic and as well international eyes were only normally trained on the two major Bamar parties – National League for Democracy (NLD) and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But this might be changing, for with the rising political awareness and available political space, the ethnic parties are now aiming to be a king-maker or a coalition partner and become part of the national political player, on the same level as those unelected military parliamentary representatives, that have 25% allotment, according the military-drafted, 2008 Constitution.
This means in case the two major parties failed to gather enough votes to form a government, they might either have to turn to the ethnic parties to form a coalition or to the the military faction.
Ethnic alliance parties
There are two ethnic alliance parties, fielding sizeable candidates for the upcoming November elections – United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) and National Brotherhood Federation (NBF).
The UNA has been around since 1990 nationwide election, headed by Khun Htun Oo of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), when the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory, in 1990 elections, coming out first and the SNLD second most winning party, but were refused to form government by the then military regime.
The UNA is comprised of 12 political parties that were formed before the 1990 elections, including Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, Kayan National Party, Zomi Congress for Democracy, Mon National Party, the Rakhine National Party, the Kachin National Democracy Congress, Karen National Party, and Shan State Kokang Democratic Party, among others.
Three more parties have asked to join UNA, officials said, naming them as the Chin League for Democracy, Danu National Democracy Party and Rakhine Patriot Party, according to Myanmar Times report of 30 July 2015.
The NBF is a newly formed ethnic alliance coalition, founded in the aftermath of 2010 elections, with 5 ethnic member parties joining the fray and has grown to 23 ever since.
The NBF is made up of Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), Chin Nationalities Democratic Party, Phalon-Sawal Democratic Party, Arakan National Party, All Mon Regions Democracy Party, Federal Union Party (FUP), Kachin Democratic Party, ࠼࠻Tai–Leng (Red Shan) Nationalities Development Party and so on.
It has also formed Federal Union Party (FUP) in 2013, in an attempt to unite the country’s ethnic groups under one banner.
The NBF elected members include 158 of the 188 ethnic party lawmakers across the country, including 24 seats in Naypyidaw’s Upper House and 42 in the Lower House.
Spokesman for NBF, Saw Than Myint, said that the party intended to capture a quarter of Naypyitaw’s 664 seats in November 8 poll. He was said to be confident that all the ethnic parties would win in their regions and the previous election results are the best example. Adding ” Every ethnic party won in their regions and none of them can be defeated now, especially in Shan, Mon and Arakan”, according to The Irrawaddy report of 22 July 2015.
The latest report on 2 September by DVB said the NBF alliance would field 710 seats nationwide; 381 in States and Regions, 116 National Assembly, 184 People’s Assembly and 29 Ethnic Affairs Minister post.
U Hla Saw of the Arakan National Party said: “ We believe that neither USDP nor NLD could not win decisively in Pyidaungsu Parliament. We, ethnic parties, are convinced that we will be strong enough in par as the USDP and NLD.”
He further stressed that since Sai Mauk Kham from USDP is now the Vice-President. The next Vice-President should also be the one from powerful ethnic parties. Apart from that, during the 2010 election the ethnic parties had won 160 seats and that this time around the NBF believed it would win more.
The two umbrella ethnic organizations have tried to work out a compromise on how to avoid the overlapping of competition in elections, but were unable to do so. The same also goes for ethnic parties under the banners of NBF and UNA in trying to resolve this kind of overlapping competition among each other, across the country. As a result, ethnic alliance members would have to work out among themselves in areas where such overlapping exist during the election campaign.
Saw Than Myint of the NBF said that the alliance had entertained the idea of avoiding potential overlap in constituencies contested by its member parties, a decision was ultimately taken to allow member parties to contest freely rather than compromising, according to The Irrawaddy 7 August report.
“If we were to negotiate, there could be difficulties from each side,” he said, without elaborating.
“[Some parties] will negotiate in some areas. Not at the arrangement of the NBF, but based on closeness. For example, in Mon State, the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party and All Mon Region Democracy Party can negotiate with their own plan,” Saw Than Myint added.
UNA would be going into the game with an aim to amend the constitution, while the NBF would strive for at least one quarter of the seat in the parliament, so that it could also become a “king-maker” in par with the 25% unelected, military bloc within the parliament.
The SNLD is a prominent member of the UNA, while the SNDP is also one of the leading member in the NBF. Apart from that the two groups also don’t have a common framework for political dialogue.
Another political alliance, Federal Democratic Alliance (FDA) is made up of 13 political parties, including non-ethnic party like National Democratic Force (NDF), Democratic Party (Myanmar), Union Democratic Party etc., while the five ethnic parties are Kayin People’s Party, Chin National Democratic Party and so on. As NBF is seen by some parties as too confrontational and oppositional, meaning perhaps to the USDP-Military regime, according to the report titled “Myanmar’s Ethnic Parties And The 2015 Elections”, written by Marie Lall, Nwe Nwe San, Theint Theint Myat and Yin Nyein Aye and funded by European Union. This paved way for the formation of FDA by those parties who were uncomfortable with NBF’s political stand. FDA is considered as an alliance to be keen in cooperating, rather than confronting the USDP-Military regime.
According to Thu Wai, chairman of the alliance member Democratic Party (Myanmar). Thu Wai downplayed the possibility of its members fielding competing candidates, however, according to 7 August report of The Irrawaddy.
He further said: “We might have a little overlap in Irrawaddy Division, but we can’t do anything about that. We might have to compete, with understanding.”
Although FDA also strive for federalism like the NBF and UNA, it is not considered an ethnic coalition party, even five of its members are ethnic, due to the participation of Bamar opposition parties.
Union Election Commission (UEC) participation list and election bird’s eye view
Myanmar Times report of 2 September, reflecting on the UEC’s 170 pages complete candidate list predicted that the voter turn-out is bound to be high, with 32 million people eligible to cast ballots at 46,000 polling stations. But given the sheer scale of the event – 93 parties, 1171 constituencies and 6189 candidates – tracking the most interesting match-ups will prove a challenge for even the most dedicated political junkie.
The same Myanmar Times report listed a total of 93 political parties, which is a big jump up when only 36 parties enter the elections in 2010. Among this year’s total, 46 parties were established after the 2012 by-election, while 11 parties were established between the 2010 and 2012 polls.
The following facts are a condensed version of the same Myanmar Times report on 2 September.
A quarter-century old parties are the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD); the Mon National Party (MNP); the National League for Democracy (NLD); the Democratic Party (Myanmar) (DPM); and the National Unity Party (NUP). Other than the NUP, however, all were declared illegal under the military junta and were re-established and re-registered only during President U Thein Sein’s term.
One other party worth highlighting is The Women Party (Mon) is the only party to comprise only women.
Aside from the voters, the election’s main protagonists are the candidates themselves, who number nearly 6200 according to the Union Election Commission (UEC).
The NLD is fielding the biggest team, with 1151 candidates, with the USDP trailing behind with 1134. Another large bid comes from the National Unity Party, fielding 763 candidates.
A new party with a strong slate of candidates is the National Development Party (NDP), which will be only five months old by election time, fielding an impressive 354 candidates, ranking the fourth-most candidate participation of any party. The party is led by former adviser to the president, U Nay Zin Latt.
Across Myanmar, 1171 constituencies are up for grabs. But it’s not, strictly speaking, a national election, as no votes will be cast in parts of Shan State: Four townships controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and one controlled by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) will have to wait still longer for the transition to democracy to reach them.
While the NLD, apart from the above mentioned no voting areas, would not run in Teddim township, Chin State, honouring a long-standing agreement with Pu Chin Sian Thang of Zomi Congress for Democracy, the USDP will not compete in Yangon’s South Dagon for the Pyithu Hluttaw; 14 places in Shan State; and eight places in Kachin State. The USDP has also chosen not to contest against the Union Pa-O National Organization and the Lahu National Unity and Development Party (LNUDP), which suggests an alliance with these parties.
The military’s representatives in parliament – 25% of seats – are not decided by the public, but its influence also spreads into the parties and their candidates. Of the four biggest parties – the NLD, the USDP, the NUP and the NDP – all have substantial ex-military representation.
The NLD is usually portrayed as being in opposition to the military, but many ex-soldiers joined the party in its early days. U Tin Oo, U Aung Gyi, U Aung Shwe (party chair before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) and U Lun Tin – former high-ranking military figures all – took the lead roles when the party started. Now, the party’s central executive committee (CEC) includes former soldier and sitting MP U Win Htein, while the chair of the central campaign committee for the 2015 election, U Tin Oo, is a former minister for defence.
The USDP, NUP and the newly formed NDP are overwhelmingly all former military people, including the election referee, the UEC, comprises retired military officials, including chair U Tin Aye.
Ethnic Alliance the real third force?
The actual fourth ranking candidate participation party might be the NBF, which is fielding 710 candidates, rather than the NDP, with 354 candidates, as the UEC suggested. But if the breakdown as individual party is applied, then NDP would be correctly placed as the fourth-most candidate fielding party.
If one would do a simple arithmetic, according to the latest available data from UEC, the three sizeable ethnic parties combined would have a total of 489 candidates with 7.4%. The actual breakdown for the parties are SNDP with 211 candidates – 3.2%, SNLD with 156 – 2.4%, and Karen Pyithu Party (KPP) 1.8% – 122, respectively.
Furthermore, the NBF alliance 710 candidates, most likely drawing from the category of “ Other political parties with less than 100 candidates”, of which most small ethnic parties are categorized, would be a formidable force to reckon with, even if SNDP’s 211 candidate count is deducted. SNDP is the leading member of the NBF.
But whether the NBF and UNA could keep their respective alliance members intact after, perhaps, winning the elections would be crucial to project their common ethnic aspirations. A further cooperation between the NBF and UNA would also be needed, if the ultimate goal of realizing a genuine federalism is to be achieved.
Thus, all will boil down to the fact on how the ethnic alliances would fare in the elections, in their respective areas, nationwide and to what extent they could cooperate and coordinate – between the NBF and UNA – to fulfil their people’s desire and aspirations.
Ethnic Armed Organization (EAOs)
In the same vein, the EAOs are also as divided as the two ethnic political alliances – the NBF and the UNA. But the good thing about it is that the EAOs have been able to iron out their differences to a certain extent and still continue to strike a bargain with the regime, where the issue of “all-inclusiveness” is concerned.
The Karen National Union (KNU) led soft-liner group has been at odds with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) led hard-liner faction within the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) 16 members, which has been negotiating with the government for the past four years.
The so-called soft-line faction is made up of KNU, Karen Peace Council (KPC), Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and later joined by the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) and Chin National Front (CNF), while the hard-liners are generally speaking, the rest of the 16 NCCT members. RCSS and ABSDF are not members of the NCCT.
The soft liners want to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as soon as possible, so that political dialogue could begin, according to their argument. But the hard-liners desire to extract more political guarantee of agreeing to a national state-based federalism, before signing the ceasefire agreement.
In the end, as the government side is not prepared to yield more political concession and stick to its argument and vague position – “ a union based on the principles of democracy and federalism”, which could mean everything from the minimal to maximal devolution of the present presidential unitary system of governance, continuing with the present unitary structure, to the actual ethnic nationalities’ demand of fully-fledge, national state-based federal set up.
It now seems, all these will be discussed only at the Framework for Political Dialogue (FPD) and later thrashed out at the actual political dialogue phase. In other words, the most crucial core issue of national state-based federalism won’t be included in the NCA, to be signed.
The last hurdle to sign the NCA is the issue of “all-inclusiveness”, meaning from the point of the ethnic, that the regime accept all the NCCT members, plus ABSDF. The government, however, is still refusing six of the NCCT members to include as signatories, giving various reasons from not qualifying as armed groups according to its criteria, not having any armed engagement and infringing in national sovereignty. The said EAOs are Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army/ Palaung State Liberation Front (TNLA/PSLF), Arakan Army (AA), Wa National Army (WNO), Arakan National Congress (ANC), and Lahu Democratic Union (LDU).
The high-level five ethnic leaders – KIO, Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), KNU and New Mon State Party (NMSP) -, together with the three Ethnic Armed Organizations-Senior Delegation (EAOs-SD) collective team is, at this writing, on its way to Naypyitaw to iron out the pressing issue.
If the NCA could be signed before the 8 November election, the election climate could improve considerably, also lending President Thein Sein and his USDP more positive outcome and better credential to go into the election campaign.
But for the ethnic, the no-vote areas of four townships controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and one controlled by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) will remain unchanged. And most EAOs won’t interrupt the election process, even though they don’t agree with the 2008 Constitution and seeking to amend or rewriting it. For most see it as practice of democratization process, if not within the mould of their genuine federalism they aspire.
In Shan State, SSPP is morally backing the SNLD, while the RCSS said that it won’t take side. But the way RCSS is related to SNDP, which is sympathetic and also participates in the drawing of FPD, under the RCSS, KNU headed team and endorsed by President Thein Sein initiated Deeds of Commitment signatories on 12 February this year, the RCSS neutral claim could be doubtful, even if this could really be the case.
Other than that the EAOs won’t be able to involve directly in the November election process, much less to enter the political arena as political parties. For this have to wait until the next legislature period, which is 2020, depending on how the political dialogue progress plays out and if the second last phase political road map of “Pyidaungsu Accord” could be signed. Then the final phase of security reintegration, also known as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR), will be implemented, according to the outcome of the political dialogue. And only after this, the entrance of the EAOs into political arena, either as civilian or part of the union defence apparatus, could be worked out, according to the agreed procedures. In short, for now, the ethnic political parties would have the ethnic political space for themselves, without worry until 2020.
The Aung San Suu Kyi factor
To the dismay but not a surprise to the ethnic political alliance, particularly the UNA, Aung San Suu Kyi decided to go it alone, despite the hope given earlier that the NLD won’t compete in its old alliance, Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP), constituencies. NLD has declared not to compete with Pu Chin Sian Thang, leader of the Zomi Congress for Democracy, in Teddim township, Cin State, honouring its long-standing agreement. Apart from that the NLD has no strategic deals with ethnic parties elsewhere, as some expected they would.
Recently, according to DVB 5 September report, Aung San Suu Kyi while campaigning in Pa-O self-administrative area of Hsi-Hseng, in southern Shan State said: “ We, the NLD, compete in this election almost in all places; in states and regions. Concerning this some ethnic people have questioned us why the NLD has to contest in ethnic areas with their representatives and don’t cooperate with them. In reality, we contest for we want to cooperate. Please let me explain. To make it short, if we want to change this country to a democratic system, NLD have to become government.”
The VOA 5 September also report that Aung San Suu Kyi explained, why the NLD has decided to compete in the whole country, including all ethnic areas. She said: “ It is like this, for the whole country 70%, 75% could be a secure base. The NLD has to compete in ethnic areas also because of this. We need altogether at least 70%.”
Khun Htun Oo, leader of the SNLD, as if responding to the situation told SHAN, on 1 September, his party will not form a political alliance with other parties contesting in Burma’s upcoming general election. He said: “ In the past, we used to wait for NLD [National League for Democracy], for the possibility of forming a coalition, as we had the same goal to fight for democracy in our country. But now, we have made the decision that we are not going to make a coalition with any party. We will serve as an opposition party and stand on our policy in fighting for the rights of the citizens.”
But toning down his “go it alone” stance later, in an interview with Myanmar Now, on 4 September, when asked what his perspective is on cooperating with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party [NLD] in this election and beyond, he replied: “We used to work together with the NLD. We even joined the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament formed by the NLD in 1998 [as the army ignored the 1990 election results]. The cooperation with the NLD benefited us. Some NLD leaders even recently informed me that the party wouldn’t field candidates in areas where we are contesting in light of our comradeship. I was grateful for that as it is inappropriate for the NLD to take it all, since this would generate misunderstanding on the part of the ethnic parties. The NLD might do well to take the UNA [United Nationalities Alliance, a coalition of 12 ethnic parties] into account; my advice for the NLD is to collaborate with the UNA in the future.”
Khun Htun Oo further stressed the NLD contesting in all ethnic constituencies, including those in Shan State, as follows: “That’s part of being a democracy. If we say ‘you can’t come and compete in our areas because we want no rival,’ then that is not genuine democracy. We also need to care about the public’s freedom to choose [a party]. We need to open up choices for the public. There are many [ethnic politicians] who tend to complain about the NLD’s plan to compete in their areas. But nobody is blaming the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party [USDP] in the same way.”
Ethnic Alliances perspective
Looking at the situation of the two ethnic alliances, the UNA and NBF, it almost seems that their sympathy and loyalty are anchored on two major Bamar opposing, parties of NLD and USDP. But the reality might be more complex than this kind of assumption.
First, the SNLD led UNA, although sympathetic to the NLD is not totally committed to the coalition to it, partly for the NLD thought that it could manage better to win majority vote by going it alone than depending on an ethnic coalition partner like SNLD, even though 1990 elections had shown that it came out first in Shan State and second nationwide, just after the NLD.
The reason might be the reasoning that SNLD vote will be split between itself and the SNDP, which also had a good record of winning in 2010 election, coming out third nationwide after USDP and NUP. And as such, the NLD might consider, it is safer to ride on Aung San Suu Kyi popularity, even though a bit waning, to win more votes and come out on top. But SNLD, and as an extension the UNA, has leave the door open for eventual coalition, if the NLD win the majority or come out just in par with the USDP, producing a draw situation after the elections, with no party able to form a government on its own.
Second, the SNDP headed NBF said that it won’t commit itself to any coalition during the pre-election time, but doesn’t also rule out that there won’t be one in post-election period. This could be out of tactical consideration for if it commits itself to the coalition with USDP, as many have been speculating, it could work against the party during the election, considering the fact that the military is being hated by the people. But still, even though the SNDP is near to the USDP, it is still unclear on how the rest of its alliance partners would think about it. Statements coming out from NBF functionaries indicate a strong pro-ethnic politics, and as such, it is also hard to believe that it would dance only to the tune of the USDP without question.
According to a member of the USDP management team who wished to remain anonymous, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) and the 23-party bloc known as Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), has formed a coalition with USDP, Burma‘s ruling party. A certain SNDP representative denied this, calling such an alliance impossible, reported SHAN, on 4 September.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, the ethnic alliances and their member parties would have to navigate the political water with great care and sophistication.
The two Bamar major parties have their advantage positions to be used in and the aftermath of the elections. Generally, the USDP has all the tools necessary to maintain the military supremacy in the present quasi-civilian government, but has to be within the legal bound, if necessary. Just imagine the USDP is now fully controlled by the ex-military people; 25% unelected military MPs still sitting in the parliament, national and as well states and regions; and UEC, the election referee, is made up of all ex-military men; which are advantages that would likely be used to further the military monopoly of political decision-making power, if the going proved to be rough.
The NLD, with Aung San Suu Kyi as its leader could still command popularity, which could be transformed into victory in the upcoming elections, although various opinion have suggested that her charisma and popularity might be waning, due to her rejection of 88 generation group to run election under NLD banner; non-committal stance in ethnic conflict, especially in conjunction with the KIO-Military armed conflict; and total silence on the plight of the Rohingya or Bengali as preferred by the regime.
Under this prevailing circumstances, both the ethnic alliances would need to identify themselves with the ethnic people’s aspirations. And all know what the priorities are.
The short term goal would be to bring genuine peace and normalcy to the ethnic homelands, which have been enduring decades of armed conflict, meted out between the ethnic resistance forces and the Burmese military, devastating their homelands and peoples. However, this is a two way street and as it takes two to tango, one can’t perform the dance alone. As such, a compromise need to be found with the adversary, one way or the other, in order to be able to deliver. This, in turn, calls for the need of sophistication and proper, pragmatic calculation and many believe the ethnic resistance leadership is doing a good job at that.
The medium one would be on how to cooperate between the two alliances and as well, with one of the two Bamar, major parties, so that the much talked about federalism based on national state configuration could materialize. The talks of each ethnic alliance each taking side separately with two opposing major Bamar parties is not healthy and won’t do any good for the concerned ethnic electorate or people. And so, the best option the two ethnic alliance should take is to position themselves as non-committal, neutral stance and wait for the election outcome, while trying to iron out the differences between themselves in order to serve the same people they are said to represent and advocating for.
The long range goal is, of course, on how to really implement the strategic aims of achieving a genuine federal form of governance and instilling harmonious living across societies and ethnic lines, under the motto of “unity in diversity”.
Thus, whether the general strategic aims of the ethnic people could be realized or not will depend solely on how effectively cooperation and coordination between the two ethnic alliances, the EAOs as a whole and all stripes of civilian-based civil societies could be meted out, in practical terms.
Finally, a well known and famous columnist, Dr.Yan Myo Thein has recently pointed out, in 7 Day Daily, on 3 September, that the military has a strategy to contain the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, so that it could continue to stay on top of the political arena, but said the ethnic and democratic opposition have none. Perhaps, it is not too late to work out a compromised, “winning strategy”, if the opposition could agree upon common goal, common leadership and common strategy on how to handle the phase of election and beyond.
The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU)-Editor