Coloring Between the Lines
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, April 15, 2024


Coloring Between the Lines


Ethnic Mon girls attend the opening ceremony of the Union Solidarity and Development Party Mandalay Division branch office. (Photo: Reuters)

The chances that Burma’s first election in 20 years will be free and fair are looking increasingly slim, but for ethnic leaders determined to make the most of the polls, the outcry from many in the democratic opposition and the international community is falling on deaf ears.

More than half of the parties planning to run in the Nov. 7 election—22 out of 37 parties approved by the junta-appointed Union Election Commission (EC)—are ethnic parties, most based in the predominantly ethnic areas that form Burma’s political periphery. In most cases, however, these parties are led by figures whose ties to the ruling regime are at least as strong as their connections to the people they claim to represent.

But not all of the ethnic parties taking a shot at winning seats in November are puppets of the generals. Some see the election as a genuine opportunity to create some much-needed political space for Burma’s long-marginalized ethnic minorities.

“We are working with our hearts full of patriotism,” said Sai Aik Pao, the chairman of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the strongest and arguably most independent of the ethnic parties. “If we don’t contest, who will speak for Shan State?” 

Like the National Democratic Front (NDF), a party that broke away from Aung San Suu Kyi’s disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) to run in this year’s election, the SNDP was formed by former members of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the party that won the second largest number of seats after the NLD in Burma’s last election in 1990.

Far from seeing the election as a sham designed to keep power in the hands of Burma’s current rulers, Sai Aik Pao said that this year’s election would actually be more meaningful than the one in 1990 because this time around there is a constitution in place to ensure that the results are respected.

He also made it clear that he was taking his party’s campaign seriously, despite the many obstacles hampering parties not under the direct control of the regime—including recent claims by SNDP sources that some members of the party have resigned due to harassment by the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

“I can’t say we will win in every constituency we contest,” he said. “It is rather like playing football: We are playing in the hope that we will win.”

With 45 candidates running for seats in the People’s Parliament, 15 for the Nationalities Parliament and 96 for the parliaments of Shan and Kachin states, the SNDP is the fourth largest party in the upcoming election, after the USDP, the National Unity Party (NUP), formerly the Burmese Socialist Programme Party founded by Burma’s late dictator Ne Win, and the NDF. According to Sai Hla Kyaw, an SNDP central executive member, the party may also seek seats in Karenni State, where many Shan people reside, as well as Mandalay and Rangoon divisions.

Most of the other ethnic parties are much smaller and less well-known. They include the Kayin Peoples Party (KPP), the Chin Progressive Party (CPP), the Rakhine Nationalities  Development Party (RNDP) and the All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP). Most are fielding  candidates only in their respective states. A notable exception is the KPP, an ethnic Karen party that will focus on contesting seats in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions, which have sizable Karen populations, but will skip Karen State completely.

The secretary-general of the KPP is Saw Say Wah, a former police colonel with ties to the Burmese junta. Like Sai Aik Pao, he has spent as much time trying to drum up enthusiasm for the election as he has seeking support for his party.

“We want to tell people not to boycott the vote,” he said. “Please make the right choice for the right person. That’s our message to the people.”

Despite the fact that the party will not be running in Karen State, which has the largest proportion of ethnic Karen in the country, Saw Simon Tha, one of the KPP’s founding members and a prominent figure in efforts to broker a cease-fire between the Burmese regime and the insurgent Karen National Union (KNU) in 2004, insists that it “will represent all of Burma’s Karen people.”

Another prominent pro-junta Karen figure who may assume a higher profile after the election is Saw Khin Soe, a former military attaché at the Burmese embassy in Tokyo. The retired former army colonel, who has campaigned on behalf of the USDP, is believed to have the trust of the Burmese regime and could be given the post of chief minister of Karen State after the election, according to Karen sources.

The KPP will field a total of 41 candidates—slightly fewer than the RNDP, which is fielding 44 candidates to contest two-thirds of Arakan State seats in the national and regional parliaments.

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