Will Baxter

In Myanmar election, ethnic ties pull heavily

More than 90 parties have registered in the country’s much anticipated upcoming elections, the first in over two decades

Young ethnic Akha listen through a doorway as members of the Akha National Development Party (ANDP) talk to residents of Mong Lat.
Will Baxter

MONG LAT, Myanmar — In the hillside home of the local chief, Yar Htun faced a small gathering of people, his back to a pigsty. Wearing a pressed white shirt and skinny gray slacks, the regional parliamentary hopeful for eastern Myanmar’s Shan state delivered his stump speech with a mix of a politician’s easy charm and a Baptist preacher’s urgent rhythm.

Surrounded by members of the Akha hill tribe, Yar Htun, a first-time candidate, laid out the reason those assembled should vote for his Akha National Development Party, or ANDP, a nascent political force in this part of Myanmar.

“We are an Akha party,” he said, “so we are thinking about the Akha people.”

Formed in July, the ANDP is the first political party in Myanmar to represent the interests of the Akha, an ethnic minority of about 300,000 people who live mostly in highland villages across a region stretching from Myanmar into China, Laos and Thailand. The audience in this tiny village had never seen a candidate like Yar Htun before. Nor, for that matter, have they seen many aspiring politicians recently; citizens have not participated in a nationwide general election since the end of Myanmar’s military dictatorship in 2011.

His speech seemed to resonate with his potential constituents. “Unity is strength,” he said, clasping his hands together. Murmurs of approval rose from the crowd. Several older women, wearing traditional garb and headdresses adorned with silver baubles and coins, did most of the talking. “We watched him, and he seems like a leader,” said 60-year-old villager Bu Yea. “We believe he will do what he can for the Akha.”

In addition to the two main political parties — the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), run by the leaders of the former military junta, and the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — there are more than 90 parties registered to take part in the Nov. 8 elections. Many are newly formed, and about two-thirds represent specific ethnic or religious groups. In this Buddhist ethnic-Bamar majority country, minorities account for more than a third of the approximately 53 million residents. According to an official government estimate, there are 135 distinct indigenous ethnic groups. 

About 40 percent of parliamentary seats cover areas where ethnic minorities are dominant, meaning ethnic parties will likely play a crucial role in the coalition building needed to select the next president. Yet recent conflict between the central government and rebel ethnic groups have “strengthened ethnic identities,” said Tom Kramer, a political scientist at the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute who specializes in Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. “In most ethnic areas, people will vote ethnic,” he said. “Anyone campaigning on issues in this election will not win.”

Ethnic Akha villagers listen to an Akha National Development Party activist as he explains the proper way to cast a ballot during a visit to Mong Lat village.
Will Baxter

Ethnic conflict and representations have been the major themes of campaigning in ethnic areas. While Suu Kyi claims that her party offers the best hope for peace, the USDP has played up its efforts to sign a cease-fire with all the country’s ethnic armed groups. Those efforts fell short recently when an ostensibly nationwide cease-fire was signed by only eight out of more than 20 rebel groups. Since then, U.S. officials have voiced concern over renewed clashes between the army and groups that did not sign the accord.

This election is likely to be the country’s freest and most inclusive since Myanmar won independence from Britain in 1948. The country’s history has been tumultuous: After three decades of dictatorship, military leaders held elections in 1990. When the National League for Democracy won by a landslide, leaders ignored the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 2010 the current government, led by former Gen. Thein Sein, was voted into power through an election most Burmese believe was rigged. Shortly afterward, the government released Suu Kyi from house arrest, initiated liberalizing economic reforms, relaxed restrictions on the media and freed thousands of political prisoners. This prompted the United States and other Western governments to re-engage with Myanmar, which U.S. officials once labeled an outpost of tyranny.

The National League for Democracy is expected to win a majority of votes among the Bamar majority, though Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president under a constitutional provision that excludes anyone whose spouse or children “owe allegiance to a foreign power.” (Her late husband was British, as are her two sons; it’s suspected the provision was implemented specifically for her.) She has said she will find a way to rule if her party wins the most seats, but achieving a parliamentary majority might be a challenge. The USDP is expected to win votes among civil servants, and the constitution sets aside 25 percent of seats for military officials.

Since campaigning began in early September, Suu Kyi has been courting the ethnic vote, taking her roadshow across Myanmar. So far, she has visited the states of Shan, Kayah, Kachin and Rakhine, promising that she would be the only leader capable of implementing the federal system of government that minorities have been demanding to gain political autonomy and control over resources in their areas. According to Kramer, Suu Kyi is “speaking a lot about a federal system because she wants to have enough seats in the lower house to select the president.” 

Beyond the two main parties, the elections offer an unprecedented degree of choice, with more than 6,000 candidates running for seats at all levels. In Kengtung Township, 12 candidates are competing for one seat in the lower house of parliament, and six candidates are running for an upper house seat that will represent Kengtung and three neighboring townships.

Yar Htun, the parliamentary candidate for the Akha National Development Party, departs Mong Lat village after speaking with Akha villagers during a campaign visit.
Will Baxter

There has been some concern about vote splitting among ethnic parties. In Shan there are two main ethnic parties — the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy — known respectively as the White Tiger and Tiger Head parties, after the symbols that will appear on ballots.

Sai Thaung Seng, a Kengtung businessman who is running for an upper house seat with the White Tiger party, simply hopes voters will back an indigenous Shan party. He characterized the ruling USDP, whose symbol is the white lion from Burmese mythology, as outsiders in Shan.

“In 2010 we had only our Shan trousers to wear, but the government party had the guns, so they won the elections,” he said. Although the USDP is running well-financed campaigns in almost every township in the country, Sai Thaung Seng insisted that they would not win the vote by coercion. “In the past, even if the whole village voted for the White Tiger, you still got the white lion,” he said. “But this time is different. You can choose for yourselves.”

High up in remote hills, the Akha are largely cut off from the infrastructure of central Myanmar — which some locals call the mainland. What they want from politicians is simple: more roads and schools. “They have a primary school nearby, but after that, kids have to travel to town to continue school, so most of them quit,” Yar Htun said. The town of Kengtung takes about 90 minutes to reach by motorcycle, a mode of transport most families cannot afford.

Yar Htun, 29, previously worked for a Christian humanitarian organization, and he professed a desire to help his fellow Akha. “If I’m elected, we will give free education up to the primary level,” he said. He then backtracked, asking a reporter, “Do you have any advice? I don’t really have that much experience with politics.”

Experience or strategy may not matter to voters. Bu Yea said she will support the ANDP and its candidates just because they belong to her tribe.

She pointed out that the ANDP appeals to Akha voters because of its symbol, a traditional Akha swing. The swing, a rope hanging from three felled branches, represents the means by which the Akha believe that they descended from a higher celestial plane. “This symbol is good for Akha people,” she said. “Other people won’t know about it. It’s just for us.”

The Akha party’s youthful secretary, who goes only by Marcus, said he hopes the excitement about the ANDP could be converted into real gains for the people.

“We want a group to put our voice out,” he said, explaining that it was difficult for non-Akha politicians to represent the group’s interests. “There is a language barrier, a culture barrier. If they don’t really understand my culture, how are they going to help us?”

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