In the Union Solidarity and Development Party stronghold of Pyawbwe Township, in southern Mandalay Region, there is growing anxiety the election will be marred by communal unrest.

This article is part of Frontier’s Tale of Five Elections series. We’re following the election through five townships across the country, capturing events and local voices through the campaign, voting and declaration of winners. Scroll down for the first two articles on Pyawbwe.

By SWE LEI MON | FRONTIER

Voters nationwide are worried about coming into contact with the coronavirus at polling stations on November 8. But in Pyawbwe Township, that risk is overshadowed by rumours of pending communal violence.

These rumours revive traumatic memories from the 2015 election among the southern Mandalay Region township’s Muslim residents, who were targeted then by Buddhist nationalists. On the night before election day, pamphlets were distributed along roads and near polling stations throughout the township urging voters to shun the National League for Democracy and vote for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which would protect Buddhism against an alleged Muslim threat. The mysterious pamphlets coincided with a barrage of Facebook posts accusing the NLD of being anti-Buddhist.

Pyawbwe is one of the few Dry Zone strongholds of the USDP, which though weak nationally still draws support from Buddhist nationalists in southern Mandalay Region. Many assume that local Muslims vote NLD, making them even more of a nationalist target.

Map created by Thibi

The USDP achieved a clean sweep in Pyawbwe in 2015, winning both seats in the regional parliament as well as the Pyithu Hluttaw seat and the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Mandalay-10, which encompasses Pyawbwe and neighbouring Yamethin Township.

Ko Nay Zar Linn, one of five Pyawbwe-based members of the Peace Forum Network, a national initiative to support the peace process, recalled one of the most disturbing rumours from the election campaign in 2015 – that one of the nation’s most revered Buddha images, at Mandalay’s Mahamuni Pagoda, had cried tears of blood. This was interpreted as meaning that Buddhism would be tarnished if the NLD won the election.

“That rumour had a huge impact on villagers because of their incomplete knowledge of Buddhism. Then, on their way to vote, they found the pamphlets. The rumours and the pamphlets changed voters’ mindset,” said Nay Zar Linn, a Buddhist NLD supporter.

“Time for change? Of course it is time to change, but not with the NLD”, the pamphlets read, referencing the NLD’s 2015 slogan.

“The USDP government is not perfect, but it is not as bad as the kalar party”, it continued, using a term that is widely considered derogatory for people of South Asian descent, particularly Muslims, to refer to the NLD.

The NLD and its supporters strongly believe that the party lost in Pyawbwe because of the rumours and the pamphlets. The USDP denies this, and allegations that it won in Pyawbwe because of help from Buddhist nationalists.

U Thaung Aye, who is seeking re-election to the township’s Pyithu Hluttaw seat for the USDP, told Frontier in late August that voters supported the party in 2015 because of the incumbent MPs’ strong record of service to local constituents.

“It was not because of Ma Ba Tha or other nationalists,” he said, referring to the Burmese acronym for the ultranationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion. The group was banned by the nation’s supreme authority representing the monkhood, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, in May 2017.

Ko Thatoe Swe, head of the NLD’s youth committee in Pyawbwe, said the possibility of heightened religious tensions around the vote is more worrying than the threat of COVID-19.

“In early October, we heard some rumours about Buddhist-Muslim unrest in the town. Those rumours have gone quiet but we remain concerned as election day nears and are monitoring the situation,” he told Frontier on October 30.

He said that, as far as he knew, no one in Pyawbwe was planning not to vote because of COVID-19, and NLD supporters are optimistic they can reverse the local result of the 2015 election.

NLD supporters ride in a convoy through Pyawbwe on October 25. (Supplied)

The township’s election sub-commission is also aware of the rumours.

“We have heard those rumours often in town, but what can we do to control them?” said sub-commission chair U Soe Myint.

Ko Pyae Phyo Thu, a member of the Pyawbwe Youth Network, a civil society group, said that although residents of Yangon and other big cities were fearful of COVID-19, few worried about the virus in the township, where there have been zero confirmed or suspected cases.

“There is no concern about the risk of COVID-19 while voting, but some residents are disappointed by the crowds at campaign events,” he said.

But, he said, some teachers who will serve as polling station officers have voiced concerns to the sub-commission about the virus and their health, he said.

“The head of the township education department has explained to them that, as government employees, they have a duty to perform the roles they are assigned to, which includes working the polling stations. We’ve tried to help by adding a lot of graduates to the polling station staff to ease some of the burden on the teachers,” Soe Myint said.

He said however that the need to follow health guidelines to limit the spread of the virus had made the work of poll officers much harder than in 2015. The challenges include making sure people vote during their assigned shift on election day – a measure to reduce crowing that will be implemented across the country.

The Pyawbwe sub-commission has prepared a total of 296 polling stations for the township’s 213,823 eligible voters, who will be choosing from among 20 candidates representing seven parties.

“The UEC directed polling station officers to wear full PPE beyond just face masks and shields, which will be very uncomfortable in the heat, but the health department has said it is not necessary, so we are still in discussions about it,” Soe Myint said.

Thatoe Swe said that were concerns that, once advance voting began, violence might flare up between NLD and USDP supporters, as it has in neighbouring Meiktila Township during the campaign period.

In townships elsewhere in the country with a higher count of COVID-19 infections, in-constituency advance voting began in the last week of October for voters aged over 60 and has been hampered by numerous allegations of misconduct and mismanagement, including the use of unauthorised stamps and the issuing of incorrect ballot papers in some areas.

NLD supporters travel in a campaign convoy in Pyawbwe on October 25. (Supplied)

But so far, Thatoe Swe said, “everything seems to be fine, and there have been no disputes among the parties about the voting process.”

Voters in Pyawbwe will be hoping this peace will keep until the results are in, and beyond.

As Aung San Suu Kyi is vilified internationally for denying genocide against the Rohingya, her opponents in Sunday’s election are ramping up the rhetoric against the Muslim minority.

By AFP

There was global revulsion at military-backed operations in 2017 that saw hundreds of thousands of people flee burning villages into the squalor of refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.

The horrifying violence – including widespread reports of murder and rape – has left Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation in tatters and sees Myanmar facing genocide charges at the UN’s top court.

But U Than Htay, leader of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, insists Myanmar has nothing to be sorry for.

“I cannot accept useless people in our country,” Than Htay told AFP of the stateless Rohingya.

The USDP is the main opposition group standing against Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy in this week’s polls, Myanmar’s second after emerging from outright military rule in 2011.

Than Htay told a campaign rally he was free of “Muslim or Chinese” blood, while his deputy slurred an NLD Muslim candidate, according to Yangon-based news site Myanmar Now.

USDP supporters even created a parody of an NLD anthem, claiming Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had welcomed “Bengali Muslims as if they were gods”.

Stripped of citizenship and rights over decades, the Rohingya are widely referred to in Myanmar by the pejorative term “Bengali”, implying they are illegal immigrants.

‘Picnic’ or genocide?

Anti-Muslim rhetoric in mainly Buddhist Myanmar remains “fair game“, Yangon-based analyst Khin Zaw Win told AFP.

“There is no danger for political parties to speak out against either the Rohingya or Muslims in general,” he said.

Just four percent of Myanmar’s 55-million population are Muslim. 

They have no mainstream political representation and are often discriminated against in schools or when applying for ID cards or jobs.

The brutal ejection of the Rohingya in 2017 was seen very differently inside the country, where the government maintains the military was simply rooting out Rohingya insurgents and did not force the community to flee.

“They left happily,” Than Htay told AFP in an interview late August at the USDP’s opulent headquarters in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

“If they’d been running from the military, they wouldn’t have prepared their bags as if going on a picnic.”

Rebrand ‘failure’

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party – born out of the pro-democracy movement under the former junta – is widely expected to be returned to office in Sunday’s polls.

The nation only emerged from outright military rule a decade ago and the armed forces still wield enormous power, retaining control of a quarter of parliamentary seats and three key ministries.

Stacked with former army officers, the USDP is now trying to downplay its links to the military in a country still deeply suspicious of the institution.

Than Htay, who attained the rank of major general before retiring, insisted, “I’m a civilian now,” although conceded army chief Min Aung Hlaing was an old childhood friend.

“We were commanders at the same military command. Our families are close. But that’s all. We have boundaries between us.”

The USDP ruled Myanmar after a hugely flawed election in 2010, boycotted by the NLD and other parties.

In 2015, the party won 28pc of the popular vote, although the country’s electoral system meant this translated as only 8pc of electable seats.

Than Htay underlined to AFP what he saw as the NLD government’s economic failures during its five-year term – a drop in GDP, more debt and an increase in living costs.

But the USDP has “failed to rebrand itself”, concluded watchdog International Crisis Group.

Analyst Khin Zaw Win warned a “tacit” alliance between the military and NLD could even make the USDP redundant. 

“If this develops, the military will have no further use for the USDP,” he said.

“The party runs the risk of losing its main prop.”

Lost income, transportation shutdowns, quarantine mandates and a general fear of the coronavirus are causing deadly disruptions to cancer patients’ treatment regimes – deaths that will not make the official pandemic statistics.

By AUNG PHAY KYI SOE | FRONTIER 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Daw Aye Aye Win took the 35 bus from her home in North Okkalapa Township twice a month to Yangon General Hospital, where she received five injections of chemotherapy for her thyroid cancer. 

At the time she earned about K5,000 a day selling baby clothing outside the Mae Lamu Pagoda, not far from her home. Once the pandemic hit, though, people stopped visiting the temple and business dried up. Aye Aye Win turned to washing her neighbours’ clothing to make money, but has been bringing in less than K2,000 a day. 

When the second wave of COVID-19 hit in late August, the city drastically cut back public transport, including on the 35 route, where frequency was reduced by half. By then, however, Aye Aye Win was already struggling to pay both the bus fare – a K1,600 round trip – and for her chemotherapy. 

Each injection costs K10,000, putting her pre-pandemic treatment regime at about K100,000 a month. To continue receiving chemotherapy, the 69-year-old has stretched out her treatment schedule and lowered her doses. Now, when she goes to the hospital, she receives just three injections – and sometimes only two – at a time. She often begs for change from people in and outside the hospital so she can afford one more injection.

“I need money to get to the clinic and to pay for my medical treatment,” she told Frontier at Yangon General on October 20. “If I don’t start making more money soon and have to keep scrimping by washing clothes, things will only get worse.”

Aye Aye Win is far from alone. Each year, about 60,000 new cancer diagnoses are made in Myanmar, according to the World Health Organization. In 2018, the most recent year for which there is data, there were 69,554. The pandemic has made it difficult for many of these patients to maintain consistent treatment routines, or to continue receiving treatment at all. For some, lost income, transportation shut downs and quarantine rules have made it all but impossible – and these treatment disruptions could prove fatal.

“The most important aim of chemotherapy is to kill the cancer,” said Dr Hein Thazar Soe, a palliative oncologist who works at several private hospitals and also has his own clinic in Yangon. “Patients who hope to beat cancer must absolutely receive regular, consistent treatment from oncologists,” the former clinical fellow at Singapore’s National Cancer Centre said. 

Road blocks

When Ma Aye Mon’s mother, a resident of the rural Mon State village of Thae Gone in Thaton Township, needed radiation treatment for cancer, an oncologist from Mawlamyine General Hospital referred her to Yangon General. 

Aye Mon’s mother, Daw Yin Mya, is 55 and has stage-four oral cancer. She received six chemotherapy treatments at Mawlamyine General beginning in March, but the hospital isn’t equipped to offer the radiation treatment she needs. 

Since early September, though, highway bus lines have been suspended between the two cities to limit the spread of the virus. Getting there is only the first problem: the course of treatment runs for an entire month, during which she will have to remain nearby.

“I’m facing big problems,” Aye Mon told Frontier. “I’m looking for ambulances from Mon charity societies for my mother, but drivers [are reluctant] because state authorities say they will need to quarantine for 14 days upon returning.”

“The doctor in Mawlamyine told me we’ll have to stay in Yangon for the month. It’s going to be difficult to find accommodation. We have no relatives in Yangon,” Aye Mon said. “We are going to ask monks if we can stay at monasteries.” 

Travel restrictions have had a particularly harsh impact on rural patients like Yin Mya, who live far from health facilities with adequate treatment options. While most restrictions include exemptions for medical-related travel, crossing state and regional borders – and sometimes even township borders – can result in having to quarantine for weeks, forcing dire decisions on patients who are unable to take time off work and still pay for life-saving treatments. 

“Cancer patients are able to travel with recommendation letters from their township administrators, but they may have to quarantine upon returning home because [each township has different rules],” said Daw Thida Khaing, an administrator for the Swel Daw Yeik Cancer Charity Group. “Because of this, most don’t want to go to hospitals.”  

Thida Khaing is herself a breast cancer survivor. She lives in Magway Region’s Saw Township, where there are no oncology facilities. If she required treatment now, she’d have had to travel to Magway town, she said – a journey that would require a lengthy quarantine period.

She said she’s seen two patients that her charity group worked with die after their treatments were paused while they served 14-day quarantines. Both – a 65-year-old man with liver cancer, also from Saw Township, and a 27-year-old monk with bone cancer from Mindat Township in Chin State – had stage-four cancer.

Altogether nearly a dozen cancer patients that Swel Daw Yeik worked with have passed away during the pandemic because they were either unable to either afford care or find local treatment. “They went to their nearest rural health units and hospitals, [but it wasn’t adequate],” she said.

She said three Yangon residents with stage four cancer that were receiving treatment in foreign countries prior to the pandemic also passed away when they couldn’t continue their treatments. 

Dr Nan Win Htwe, a radiation oncologist at Mandalay General Hospital, told Frontier he’s seen a frightening drop in patients returning for regularly scheduled treatments.

A young Myanmar girl sits next to her mother, who is terminally ill with lung cancer, at the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, northwest Thailand on November 3, 2010. Every year more than 60,000 Myanmar citizens are diagnosed with cancer. (AFP)

“Because of these travel restrictions from the government, most cancer patients from villages and other townships have been unable to come to the hospital for regular chemotherapy and radiation treatment,” he told Frontier on October 26. 

Meanwhile, hotels and guest houses in the city are officially closed because of the pandemic, and residents are barred from boarding guests. “A patient in Meiktila that needs radiation treatment would have to come to Mandalay and stay here for more than a month for daily radiation treatments, but there is no place to stay in Mandalay right now,” Nan Win Htwe said. 

“They’d have a lot of trouble finding accommodation.”

Closing doors and growing fears

Public and private hospitals and clinics have also been limiting the number of new cancer patients they’re seeing to reduce their risk of spreading the coronavirus. Since August 27, Yangon General’s Oncology Department cut the amount of new cancer patients it sees in a day by more than half, from over 40 to about 20. It has also lowered its load of cancer outpatients to 100, from between 250 and 300. 

The Shwe Yaung Hnin Si Cancer Foundation, a cancer treatment centre in Pazundaung Township that works in partnership with the private Pun Hlaing Siloam Hospital in Hlaing Tharyar Township, has temporarily stopped taking new patients altogether. Representatives said the size of their facility makes social distancing among patients impossible. 

“We are still providing treatment to old cancer patients who have had ongoing chemotherapy treatment at Pun Hlaing Hospital,” said Dr Moe Aung Kyaw Naing, the foundation’s secretary.

Even with accessible treatment options, some patients are too afraid to seek help at hospitals and clinics, where they fear catching the coronavirus may be an even greater threat. Myanmar’s first official COVID-19 fatality was a 69-year-old woman with underlying nasal cancer from Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township. Before her death, on the morning of March 31, she had been receiving radiation treatment in Australia. While it’s unclear what role the cancer played in her death, the incident may have frightened many patients.

While 95 percent of Myanmar’s COVID-19 deaths have been patients with underlying conditions, only about 4pc had cancer, according to data from the Public Health Department’s office for non-communicable disease. That is much less than other leading comorbidities – 43.7pc had underlying hypertension or cardiovascular disease, and 38.3pc had diabetes, for example – but the risk is still real.

“Oncology patients are among the most vulnerable … when it comes to COVID-19,” Nan Win Htwe said.

“Cancer patients have weaker immune systems and so are less resistant and more vulnerable to both infection and disease from the coronavirus,” Hein Thayzar Soe said. “It is a life-threatening combination.”

Afraid of going to hospitals and clinics that could put them at greater risk of coming into contact with the virus, many cancer patients have cut back or stopped their treatment. 

“There are a lot of patients who are avoiding treatment in our [charity] group,” Thida Khaing said. “They are afraid that if they go, they will be infected with COVID-19. So they go to nearby rural health units instead.”

Several, she said, have died. These deaths will not be included on the Ministry of Health and Sports’ COVID-19 fatality count. But infection is not the only way this pandemic kills. The number of people who have been killed without being infected with the coronavirus will be speculated on for years.

Friends of the Union Election Commission chair describe a passionate democrat, but opposition parties accuse him of bias and observers say a failure to communicate has undermined trust in the commission. 

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

When U Hla Thein was picked to be the next head of the Union Election Commission in March 2016, his appointment took many by surprise.

The former university lecturer had led the district election sub-commission in Meiktila in Mandalay Region since 2010 but was little known in political circles. Without a military background, he also marked a significant departure from outgoing UEC boss U Tin Aye, a former Tatmadaw lieutenant-general, and his predecessor, former major-general Soe Thein.

For much of his term, and even into the campaign period, Hla Thein has maintained his low profile, rarely meeting with election stakeholders, much less the media. 

But as the election draws closer and complaints rise over the UEC’s handling of the vote, Hla Thein’s leadership has increasingly come into question.

The many issues raised include the disenfranchisement of ethnic and religious minorities, notably the Rohingya, the seemingly uneven cancellation of voting in conflict areas, and the commission’s perceived bias in favour of the ruling National League for Democracy. 

The UEC has also been forced into a number of embarrassing backflips, most notably on allowing Myanmar’s largest observer group the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections to monitor the vote. On October 27, it announced revisions to where voting would be cancelled for security reasons, following criticism from ethnic-based parties and observers of its earlier announcement.

So, who is the man leading Myanmar’s controversial electoral management body? The publicity-shy Hla Thein declined a request for an interview Frontier submitted back in August, and there is little publicly available information about him. But interviews with political insiders as well as friends and former colleagues reveal a person who believes strongly in democracy, but is also uncompromising and intolerant of criticism. 

U Hla Thein delivers a speech at Meiktila University. (Supplied/U Soe Myint)

‘He deserves the position’ 

Hla Thein, 72, was born in the small village of Thapyay Taung, in Myittha Township just south of Mandalay. He left the rural dry zone to attend university in Mandalay, and attained a masters in geology before joining Mandalay University as a lecturer in 1980. During a 28-year academic career, he served at universities in Magway and Kengtung and gained a Diploma in Geological Survey from the International Training Centre (now part of the University of Twente) in the Netherlands, before retiring as rector of Meiktila University in 2008. 

U Soe Myint, who met Hla Thein in 1998 when they were both lecturers at Mandalay University, described him as someone who has the “nature of a teacher” and “lives peacefully”. 

“He deserves to take the position,” Soe Myint said, referring to Hla Thein’s role as UEC chief. He said he gets upset when he sees his friend – who he refers to as “sayargyi”, or revered teacher – being criticised by the public or in the media. 

As an example, Soe Myint cited media accusing Hla Thein of undermining the independence of the UEC after a photo emerged of him paying respect to State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017.

The photo, which circulated widely on social media, also featured some Union ministers and heads of other Union-level organisations paying home to the National League for Democracy chair, but Soe Myint said Hla Thein had been singled out unfairly.

“Among all the government officials, only Hla Thein was criticised,” Soe Myint said. “He respects Aung San Suu Kyi and he is a religious person – he did it unintentionally.”

U Thein Paing, who worked under Hla Thein at Meiktila University, described his old boss as someone who is strict about enforcing rules, and makes sure to adhere to them himself. He referenced an incident at the university, when Hla Thein banned the use of motorcycles on campus because he viewed them as a disruption.

“One day, he saw a woman tutor with a motorbike inside the compound and told her to pay a fine. The woman tutor was angry, and complained that, as a teacher, she should be exempt from this rule. Sayargyi [Hla Thein] didn’t accept this, and gave her a warning and told her to pay the fine,” Thein Paing said. 

Thein Paing also described Hla Thein as someone who is respectful to his superiors and “very good to his staff”. 

“But he is quiet and unsociable. That’s why people who don’t know him have a different view,” Thein Paing said. 

Although well-regarded by colleagues – or at least some of them – Hla Thein was basically an unknown when he was elevated to lead the UEC.

Many saw the hand of U Win Htein, an NLD powerbroker and Meiktila native who hand-picked many important appointments after the party’s election win in 2015.

The pair met when Win Htein successfully ran as the NLD candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw in Meiktila in the 2012 by-elections.

Win Htein told Frontier he had a close relationship with Hla Thein and had “recommended” him for the position because of his “good reputation”. However, he said the party’s Central Executive Committee made the final decision. 

“He has a good record of service in the education field, and as a teacher he is patient, honest and calm. As someone who headed of a district election body, he knows about the electoral process. Most importantly, I trust he believes in the democratic process,” Win Htein said. “But I couldn’t decide alone.”

Union Election Commission chair U Tin Aye speaks at an event to announce results from the general election in Nay Pyi Taw on November 15, 2015. (AFP)

Hope for change

Having succeeded two former generals, many in Myanmar’s political community hoped Hla Thein would build the independence and capacity of the commission, and oversee the smooth management of the 2020 general election.

The commission has taken some important steps to improve the legal framework. The most widely reported of these was a change requiring military personnel and their families to vote outside cantonments, but the international monitoring group The Carter Center noted in a pre-election statement several other reforms passed in June this year. These changes formalise the role of election mediation committees, require election sub-commissions to help people with disabilities to ensure they are able to vote, acknowledge the right of observers to be in polling stations and provide for the replacement of a ballot a voter accidently spoils during polling, the group said.

Hla Thein has promised that the November 8 general election will be a “model” election held according to five criteria: freedom, justice, transparency, credibility and consistency with the will of the people.

The coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly made the task of holding the election far more difficult, but some observers say there were already signs that the UEC was likely to encounter problems.

The Carter Center, for example, noted that elements of the electoral process that it had singled out for reform after observing the 2015 election – including  the dearth of transparency in out-of-constituency advance voting by military personnel, and the lack of gender balance on the UEC – have not been addressed. Advance voting by Tatmadaw soldiers and their families remains a black box, and there are no women on Hla Thein’s commission.

Insiders also say that over the past four-and-a-half years, the commission has also made little progress on building its institutional capacity and failed to engage adequately with political parties, civil society groups and the media. 

During the 2018 by-elections, the UEC was criticised for major errors in the voter lists. Flaws in the electoral roll reappeared this year, when lists went on display for three weeks back in July and August, prompting Aung San Suu Kyi to raise the issue in a public teleconference with both UEC member U Myint Naing and Minister for Labour, Immigration and Population U Thein Swe. 

As the election has neared, the complaints have grown to include the censoring of political parties’ speeches on state media, the way voting has been cancelled in some ethnic minority areas for inadequately explained security reasons, and the commission’s unwillingness to push back the election despite high numbers of COVID-19 infections. In each case, the commission has been accused of bias in favour of the NLD.

Political party representatives watch Union Election Commission members speak during a meeting in Yangon on June 27 to discuss a code of conduct for parties and candidates to abide by in the run-up to the vote. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

‘An insult to political parties’ 

The lack of trust in the UEC stems in part from the constitution, under which the incoming president picks commissionmembers whose terms are tied to those of the government.

In a country that lacks a culture of strong, independent political institutions, many see this as highly problematic. 

“Unless the 2008 constitution is amended, criticisms that the commission is biased and unfair will reappear every five years,” said U Han Shwe, vice chair of the National Unity Party, which has competed in all elections since 1990. 

Hla Thein has urged political parties and other stakeholders to trust him, but they insist that he must prove he is unbiased by creating an electoral landscape that guarantees fairness for all of those competing. 

The lack of dialogue between the current commission and key stakeholders – including parties, observer groups, civil society and the media – has undermined that trust. 

Inevitably, some are drawing unfavourable comparisons between Hla Thein’s commission and that of his predecessor, Tin Aye. 

Prior to the 2015 vote, there were questions raised about the impartiality of a UEC run a former military man who won a seat for the Union Solidarity and Development Party in the 2010 election. Although there were problems, including the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya and a comprehensive lack of transparency in out-of-constituency advance voting, Tin Aye was credited with overseeing a mostly free and fair vote.

“The [current] commission cooperates very little with political parties compared to U Tin Aye’s time,” said U Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party (Myanmar), which formed in 2010. “As other parties have said, by looking at its management of the election it is very clear that the UEC is biased.” 

Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, executive director of the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, said that the current UEC is a “step backwards” from the past. Regarding election observation, he said the commission members seem to dislike the idea of their performance being scrutinised. 

“I think they are very nervous about discussing issues openly,” he said, adding that this had damaged trust between the UEC and other stakeholders. “With the previous commission, there were serious debates with CSOs. Some problems couldn’t be solved, but at least we could talk.” 

However, National Unity Party vice chair Han Shwe said Soe Thein, who oversaw the 2010 vote, was the worst commission chairman he had encountered, and was a man who “did what he wanted”. 

“U Tin Aye was biased as well,” Han Shwe said. “However, there were negotiations, not only with the parties, but also with civil society and the media. Under U Hla Thein, this rarely ever happens. He only meets with the parties once a year.” 

Another difference with Tin Aye’s commission is in how Hla Thein and his colleagues engage with the media – or, rather, how they don’t. 

UEC press conferences are usually led by commission member U Myint Naing, with Hla Thein rarely present. It is very difficult for journalists to get comments from commission members, and Hla Thein has rarely given interviews. He seems “afraid of talking to the media”, Han Shwe observed.

Tin Aye also had a complicated relationship with the media, but he was anything but afraid. Journalists recall how at onepress conference in November 2015 that Tin Aye had delegated to another commission member, he emerged mid-way through the event to take over – apparently unhappy at his colleague’s inability to answer questions. 

Although Win Htein cited Hla Thein’s patience when discussing the former rector’s suitability for the UEC chief role, in his rare encounters with reporters the commission chair has appeared sensitive to criticism. In an interview (published in two parts) with Radio Free Asia on August 14, Hla Thein, when asked about errors on the voter list, interrupted the reporter and responded, “Is there a voter list anywhere that doesn’t have errors?”. In response to one tough question, he replied, “Why did you ask me that question? Why not before [to the previous commission]?”

He has also upset political parties with his comments. In June, during a two-day meeting to discuss a code of conduct for parties and candidates to abide by in the run-up to the vote, a heated argument broke out between commission representatives and opposition parties, including the USDP, over the use of images of Bogyoke Aung San. Some political parties asked the commission to change the code to ban the use of the independence hero’s image in campaigns. When Hla Thein refused, dozens of parties refused to sign, including the USDP. 

During the negotiations, Hla Thein provocatively told parties to focus on encouraging people to believe in them rather than expressing doubts about the fairness of the commission. “We were amazed at what he said. He is very rude,” U Nandar Hla Myint, a spokesperson of the USDP, said at a press conference after the meeting. 

At a meeting with civil society organisations in Nay Pyi Taw on July 17, rather than trying to make amends he stuck the boot in further by repeating his claim that political parties should focus on gaining public trust rather than criticising the commission, saying that most parties failed to win seats in 2015 because the public didn’t trust them. 

“It is an insult to political parties,” Nandar Hla Myint said of Hla Thein’s comments.  

Many politicians hold Hla Thein personally responsible for the commission’s shortcomings. When 34 opposition political parties, led by the USDP, held a meeting with Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on August 14 to raise concerns about the election,  some participants in the meeting called for Hla Thein to resign. 

Election sub-commission officers and volunteers prepare a mobile polling station in Yangon’s Botahtaung Township on October 29 to enable elderly people to cast advance votes. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

A complex organisation

Thein Paing insists the criticism of his former university colleague is unfair. Hla Thein, he says, is impartial and neutral, but he is also working under significant pressure in a complex organisation.

Thein Paing said the former rector must coordinate with several different government departments to administer the election at the local level, and these departments are not always cooperative. 

For the 2018 by-elections, Thein Paing was made chair of the Tarmwe Township election sub-commission in Yangon at the recommendation of Hla Thein, and he said the process of successfully holding an election is not as straightforward as many people think. 

“Even if you want to do it right, there are things that can cause you trouble,” he said. “In my experience, there were some very difficult situations to deal with. It’s impossible to expect other staff to listen and follow what you said.” 

Thein Paing, who has since resigned from the UEC, said dealing with political parties was also challenging. He pointed to the time he issued a warning letter to the NLD campaign team in Tarmwe to follow campaign rules. 

“I was told [by NLD members], ‘Why did you issue a warning to the party?’. They assumed I shouldn’t do it because the commission was appointed by the NLD,” he said.

Thein Paing argued that Tin Aye’s job of overseeing the UEC was easier than Hla Thein’s because, as a former general, he was better protected from external criticism and faced fewer internal obstacles.

“Sayargyi [Hla Thein] is not like that. He is only one [person] and no one backs him. Because of that I say Sayargyi is doing his best in a complex situation,” Thein Paing said. 

Despite the widespread criticism, Hla Thein is determined to fulfil his responsibilities, said his former colleague Soe Myint.

“He phones me every day to talk about personal matters. He doesn’t complain about his work – he’s still enthusiastic about the job,” Soe Myint said, adding that Hla Thein told him to “go ahead” when he said he was being interviewed by Frontier for this article.

Soe Myint said Hla Thein rarely discusses work outside of the office, except to share information about voter lists and the rules for advance voting.

With just days to go until election day, the UEC is under greater scrutiny than ever. The commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has even weighed in, describing “weakness and deficiencies which were never seen in previous elections” in a statement put out by his office on November 2 in which he cast doubt on the fairness of the election.

With more parties than ever competing, outbreaks of violence on the campaign trail and recurrent complaints of bias against the UEC, the post-election period could be a turbulent one for Hla Thein and his fellow commissioners.

The UEC chair has insisted that he is treating all parties fairly, and will continue to do so until his term ends in March 2021. 

“We are not biased against any party,” he said in the RFA interview in August, and warned everybody to follow the electoral rules. “No one is above the law.”