Myanmar will hold the 2020 general election on November 8. This will be third major national general election along with 3 by-elections since 2010 when the military regime made way for national elections based on the 2008 constitution.
In the first round of elections in 2010 following 22 years of military rule, the military-allied Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) swept the polls. It could have been partly because the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) refused to participate in the election, having criticized the 2008 constitution, which it considers entrenches military powers. However, five years later in 2015, the NLD not only took part in the election but also won the majority of the seats. Thus in early 2016, NLD assumed power while the USDP was relegated to the opposition bench.
Myanmar has approximately 54 million people and two-thirds of Myanmar’s populations are Bamar (Burman). Ethnic minorities make up the remaining one-third. Given the two-third majority of population in Myanmar, all major electoral contests in the past two elections in 2010 and 2015 have been between USDP and NLD, considered to be Bamar parties. They are ubiquitous all throughout the country and have seemingly taken turns to govern Myanmar over the past 10 years.
During this time, ethnic parties have not fared well. Despite having one-third of the population, they barely won 15% of the seats at bicameral Union Parliament in 2010. They did far worse in 2015 election, only winning just over 11%, most importantly the Arakan National Party (ANP) and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).
55 Ethnic Political Parties
Myanmar has a total of 92 political parties. Of those, 55 are ethnic political parties. However, they have won far less in comparison to their combined populations in the past elections. But the wake-up call was just about to happen. This major event could potentially change the electoral landscape in the 2020 election.
For a long period of time, analysts have predicted that ethnic parties could potentially become king-makers in the competition between major Bamar parties in Myanmar’s electoral democracy. In this way, they could negotiate their rights in the Union. However, this has yet to be realized.
But the rude awakening in the form of unexpected electoral defeat to NLD in many ethnic areas in 2015 jolted the ethnic parties to open their eyes. Once the defeat was firmly conceived they began to look for answers.
For them the immediate culprit was disunity. Ethnic communities are fragmented. While all major ethnic groups have political parties, they also have ethnic groups fighting the central government for greater autonomy for the past 70 years. Some groups such as the Shan and Rakhine have more than one armed group. In the arena of the electoral politics, there were two or sometimes three political parties representing the same ethnic minority. They could not cooperate and were at loggerheads with each other. Existence of smaller, multiple and disparate ethnic groups in some of the ethnic geographical areas do not help either.
Nonetheless, on reflection the ethnic parties believed intra-ethnic competition caused confusion among their voters and as a result the vote was split, helping NLD or USDP win in their areas.
As early as 2016 therefore, they began merger talks as a remedy to overturn the disappointing results of the 2015 elections.
Given the deep divisions among the ethnic parties, there was much skepticism as to the chances of successful mergers. However, they surprised many observers, and impossible feat was achieved in many ethnic areas. Despite the fact that many problems remain presently in the mergers, the Mon, the Kachin, the Chin, the Karen, the Wa and the Kayah pulled their resources together and merged into single units representing their own ethnic groups.
Additionally, some ethnic parties across the State/Region lines have agreed not to compete against each other. Instead, they are to cooperate by way of encouraging their own ethnic groups to vote for ethnic candidates from different ethnic groups in return for similar support in the areas where there are mix-mesh of ethnic populations, in order to increase the chances of gaining more ethnic seats.
In term of mergers, there are exceptions. In spite of the fact that two major Shan parties have met several times to merge in the past few years they remain irreconcilable and will contest the election in 2020 under different banners. The Rakhine also remain split among three parties.
Observers believe that it is not just the disunity that deprived ethnic parties of the fair share of the electoral seats in the past elections. Besides disunity, ethnic parties lack capacity and viable strategy. They were also unable to provide broader universal appeal, not only to their populations but also to Bamars living in ethnic states. For this reason, the newly-merged Kachin party even called themselves “Kachin State People’s Party” in order to appeal to all groups residing in Kachin State.
The help for the ethnic minorities to be united has also come from the unexpected direction – the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.
During the 2015 election, the NLD enjoyed the ethnic support. The NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was charismatic and considered the champion of the oppressed people of Myanmar including by the ethnic minorities against the military rule. Over the past five years, however, she has made a series of blunders.
Her first mistake was the appointment of all States and Regions Chief Ministers with party members once NLD was installed as the government. While Regions where the Bamar majority resides had no problem with this as she won the landslide victory in the election, ethnic parties which won more seats in the regional elections than NLD were dealt a crushing blow. This was nowhere more apparent than in Rakhine where NLD won only 8 seats and local Rakhine party won 23 seats. As the President has the constitutional right to appoint Chief Ministers, her party duly appointed an NLD leader to the position of the Chief Minister for Rakhine State. It was constitutionally correct but was democratically wrong to the core.
In Mon State, she remained silent when the local Mon population opposed to the naming a bridge “General Aung San”, her father’s name in mid-2017. She remained silent even when her party candidate lost the by-election contested in the same town where the bridge is located. From then on the construction or erecting of General Aung San’s statute spread all over the country. While areas with Bamar populations have no problem with statutes of General Aung San, ethnic groups were opposed to NLD’s plan.
The voice of the youth in Kayah State, bordering Thailand, was the most vocal. Their strong opposition to the construction of General Aung San’s statute in the state capital led to the government using force and detaining a large number of activists in mid-2018.
Despite having the power to stop such politically insensitive actions, Aung San Suu Kyi did nothing to stop them.
In the end, the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi for the ethnic minority are just another Bamar party reneging on the election promises of 2015. For them, Aung San Suu Kyi eventually turns out to be an even stronger “chauvinistic Bamar, out to control and patronize the ethnic groups.” She is in the elections not for equality for the ethnic groups but for further control of the ethnic states. Even at the time of this writing, a few weeks before the election, the NLD’s tone and policy remain unchanged in regard to their ethnic policy.
These and other mistakes of the NLD, such as the faltering peace process and elusive peace and reverse reconciliation under her watch, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made ethnic mergers more plausible. In the ethnic areas where the mergers did not happen, ethnic parties have taken advantage of the mistakes and false promises of the NLD. They have begun to use ethno-nationalist tones in their campaigns. Now they need to take back what is rightfully theirs. Only the power secured in their hand can guarantee their rights and outsiders are not to be trusted – be the military or a civilian party purporting to help the ethnic minorities.
The 2020 election is just around the corner. It is generally believed that NLD will win a sizable number of seats. However, it is widely believed that the NLD will likely lose or face tough challenges from ethnic parties in ethnic areas. For Myanmar it is only a matter of time to see if the 2020 election is the beginning of the change of the political landscape in regard to the role of ethnic political parties.