Ethnic pressure, conflicts key concern for Myanmar’s incoming MPs | Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar – On November 8, the National League for Democracy won another sweeping victory in the national elections in Myanmar. She claimed 920 of the 1,117 available seats in local and national parliaments, improving her 2015 landslide.
The elections were marked by some significant flaws – mainly the exclusion of the Rohingya Muslim majority and widespread election cancellations in Rakhine – but were free of serious irregularities and were widely viewed as an expression of the NLD’s continued overwhelming popularity.
The pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) failed to win even in its former strongholds in the Buddhist heartland, and Yangon-based political analyst Richard Horsey said it was “practically dead at this point as a national political force”.
While the turnout has been estimated at a staggering 71 percent, not everyone is enthusiastic about the political process.
Yangon-based activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi has chosen not to vote.
“I never thought I would be at this point. I was always excited about elections and politics, ”she said in a message on election day. The main reason for their decision to boycott was to exclude ethnic minorities. “I feel guilty, as if my vote is granted because I am of the ethnicity majority,” she said. “I stand in solidarity with those whose rights are denied.”
A number of seats in Myanmar’s parliament are reserved for the armed forces, which has made it difficult for the government to push reforms to reduce the military’s role in politics [File: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA)All eyes are now trained on ethnic relations and democratic development, both policy areas where the government of Aung San Suu Kyi failed to make headway in its first term.
“The scale of the NLD’s victory gives it the space and political capital to adjust some of its policies and tackle more unpopular or controversial issues. Whether it will do so, or double down on the successful formula it has followed so far, remains to be seen,” Horsey said.
The new parliament is expected to sit in February.
Al Jazeera spoke to three incoming first-time members of parliament from different parties, ethnic backgrounds, and parts of the country about their plans for the upcoming term.
Win Mya Mya, 77, National League for Democracy
Win Mya Mya won her seat this year after being passed over as a candidate in the previous election [Supplied]
Win Mya Mya, a 77-year-old Muslim candidate for the NLD, won a seat in the national parliament in the Mandalay area after the party’s controversial disapproval in 2015, a decision many blamed on religious discrimination.
“It started with the 1988 uprising,” said Win Mya Mya of her political career. She participated in the mass protests against the military dictatorship that year, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and was one of the founding members of the NLD. “We had a lot of difficulties at that time,” she said.
The next few decades were a revolving door to arrests, and Win Mya Mya often used her own money to support NLD political prisoners.
She said she was detained, questioned, and intimidated for short periods of time. In 1999, my brother and sister were arrested and sentenced to many years in prison. I was arrested again in 2000 and released in 2001, ”she said. However, after the 2008 Saffron Revolution protests, she faced a heavier sentence.
“I was sentenced to 12 years in prison,” she said, but ultimately only served about four years.
“Living alone in prison caused me psychological problems. I couldn’t see anyone and I had nowhere to go. With the help of a prison doctor, I was allowed to go outside for about half an hour a day. “Win Mya Mya served most of her sentence in Putao, in the remote northern part of Myanmar, at the foot of the Himalayas. She remained behind bars until 2012 when she received a presidential pardon.
Win Mya Mya’s political awakening came in 1988 when there was a mass uprising against military rule. She is a founding member of the NLD [File: Tommaso Villani/AFP]Undaunted, she immediately returned to politics. “I was elected vice chairman of the Mandalay Region by the people at the National Party Congress in 2013,” she said, a position she still holds.
When asked how she finally feels as a MP after a lifelong struggle, she is humble. “I see it as a job,” she said. “I am very happy to be able to work for the people in Parliament.”
The NLD is known to be a highly centralized organization and Win Mya Mya declined to mention any particular issue that it would focus on in Parliament, saying it did not know what tasks would be “assigned” to it.
She dodged questions about the NLD’s decision to exclude it from the 2015 election, instead praising the party’s performance. “The NLD government has done a lot in five years. Roads and bridges in every community. Reforms in the education system, electricity distribution, ”she said. Although she was not a MP, she was still a senior member of the party and said she could work on health care reform in that capacity.
Win Mya Mya admitted that there is religious discrimination against Muslims in Myanmar, but denies that the NLD itself discriminates. “They are friendly regardless of race,” she said, also declining to comment on the Rohingya crisis, which is the subject of a genocide investigation before the United Nations Supreme Court.
Aung Thar Noe, 45, Arakan National Party
Aung Thar Noe switched to politics with the Arakan National Party after years of working in civil society [Supplied]
In the state of Rakhine, where Myanmar’s most violent conflict rages, the local Arakan National Party again won the most seats in national and state legislatures despite widespread election cancellations, mostly affecting the areas won in 2015. The cancellations meant that the ANP fell short of gaining a direct majority in the state parliament, but it won in areas that the NLD had last occupied.
Horsey said the results show that the ANP “has cemented its hold on the former NLD strongholds … in southern Rakhine state.”
Aung Thar Noe is a 45-year-old recently elected to the Rakhine State Parliament for the ANP after decades in civil society. “I’ve decided to get more involved in politics because I want to save the Rakhine people,” he said. He was elected to the ANP’s central executive committee just last year.
“There is no other organization in Rakhine that represents the interests of the Rakhine,” he said. Aung Thar Noe was elected in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine and one of the few constituencies in the north of the state that actually held elections this year. He says the mass cancellations in the rest of North Rakhine increase his responsibility.
The election was canceled in many parts of Rakhine because of the worsening conflict between the military and the Arakan Army, an armed ethnic Rakhine group [File: Nyunt Win/EPA]“I have to do the duty for the areas with no choice. I am the only MP from the northern Rakhine area where we have our own problems. the conflict, war crimes, [internally displaced people]. I have to spend more time than an ordinary MP in other parts of the country because I represent so many people, ”he said.
While hoping the local government can achieve more during this tenure, he said that depends on the NLD, which has “refused to cooperate or share power” for the past five years despite the 2015 ANP in Rakhine the majority won. Since neither party won with the majority this year, the NLD has to decide whether it wants to form a coalition with the ANP or the military bloc. Aung Thar Noe said that if the NLD worked with the ANP, the risk of increased conflict could be reduced.
Horsey said the first real test will be Parliament’s selection early next year. “If the NLD bloc teams up with the military bloc to push through its candidate, it will anger the political leaders of Rakhine. If the NLD works with the Rakhine parties on a consensus candidate, it could be an important signal of the NLD’s readiness to consult more with ethnic parties on important decisions and could help ease political tensions, ”he said.
Nai Layae Tama, 57, Mon Unity Party
Mai Layae Tama was once a member of the political wing of the main armed group Mon in Myanmar before coming back to life as a farmer [Supplied]
In Mon State, two ethnic Mon parties formed the Mon Unity Party to avoid having the votes split after a poor election result in the 2015 election. The MUP improved over 2015, winning five seats in the national parliament and six in the state parliament, but was still a distant second behind the NLD, which won a clear majority in the state.
Nai Layae Tama, a 57-year-old member of the Mon State Parliament, came into politics over conflict. From 1987 to 1998 he was a member of the New Mon State Party, the political wing of the main armed group in Mon, and retired a few years after the 1995 ceasefire agreement. “Then I took a break and focused on my farming business,” he said.
He returned to politics in 2012 before becoming General Secretary of the Mon National Party in 2015, one of the two parties that had merged to form the MUP.
“I’ve been immersed in politics all my life,” he said. “During the five-year tenure of the NLD government, I was not satisfied with the NLD’s attitude towards ethnic parties,” he added.
Nai Layae Tama said his personal priority is to create a community development committee in Mon State that is popularly elected. The local parliament drafted the law, but it has stalled. “When I get to Parliament, I will try to get the Community Development Act out as soon as possible,” he said.
He said that many of the MUP’s goals “will depend on how positive the NLD can be in dealing with ethnic parties”. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
Horsey said some ethnic parties blame “an unfair NLD office advantage” and “campaign restrictions due to COVID-19” for their poor results. However, he also assumes that the loss of the election “will trigger a lot of soul searching”. “If they come to the conclusion that the electoral system is stacked against them, it could deepen the political divide – and in some places armed conflict,” he said.
Nai Layae Tama seems ready to get involved in electoral politics for the time being, but has to see a compromise by the NLD during this term. He said there were “various reasons” why the party was performing worse than expected, but that he was generally still “happy” with the outcome. “We lost in the constituencies, the vote was very tight,” he said, adding that many Mon migrant workers were unable to come home and vote due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The continued commitment of the MUP to the political process will also depend on the NLD’s commitment to the peace process. “If we can become an inclusive government after the results of the recent elections, it would be very helpful for peace,” he said.