Tale of Five Elections

Myitkyina

A three-wheeled cargo motorbike cruises the streets of downtown Myitkyina on October 5, 2015. Support for the NLD ran high then, but it has since waned among ethnic groups in Kachin State. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)
A three-wheeled cargo motorbike cruises the streets of downtown Myitkyina on October 5, 2015. Support for the NLD ran high then, but it has since waned among ethnic groups in Kachin State. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

All bets are off in the race for Myitkyina

Ethnic identity is poised to define the election in the Kachin State capital, where votes from internal migrants and Tatmadaw soldiers could tip the scales in a close race.

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. Stay tuned for updates about Myitkyina, as well as Bawlakhe in Kayah State, Mayangone in Yangon Region, Mrauk-U in Rakhine State and Pyawbwe in Mandalay Region.

By HKUN LAT | FRONTIER

“So far everything is smooth and peaceful,” said Kachin State election sub-commission deputy director U Htun Aung Khaing, speaking from his desk in the state capital, Myitkyina. “There are no big problems.”

Ahead of the 2015 general election, conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army prompted the Union Election Commission to cancel polling in 212 of Kachin’s 628 village tracts. Fighting has lessened in the last two years, following a spike in 2018, and more than 90 percent of those excluded village tracts – 193 in total – will host polling stations in the November election, Htun Aung Khaing told Frontier during a visit to Myitkyina in late July. 

Myitkyina map
Map created by Thibi

Disruptions to the election are highly unlikely in the city, even if armed conflict were to resume in the countryside. Situated on an oxbow of the Ayeyarwaddy River 800 kilometres north of Mandalay, Myitkyina has been an important trade hub between Myanmar and China for centuries and hosts a diverse mix of ethnic Kachin, Shan, Bamar, Indian and Chinese communities. At the concrete shopfronts and markets in the city’s low-rise centre, you can hear traditional Kachin clothing and plastic Chinese goods being haggled over in Burmese, Jinghpaw, Hindi and other languages.

But despite Myitkyina’s veneer of cosmopolitanism and peaceful commerce, the ravages of a decades-long war that was reignited in 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire collapsed, remain front of mind for many resident voters. The sprawling cantonments of the Tatmadaw’s Northern Command form a city-within-a-city, and the resident soldiers and their dependents are a readymade voting bloc for the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. Meanwhile, thousands of people uprooted from elsewhere in Kachin still languish in 26 camps for the internally displaced within the boundaries of the city.

In 2015 the National League for Democracy won both the upper and lower house seats for Myitkyina Township with 46pc of the vote, and both state assembly seats with similar margins. The USDP was the runner-up in elections across the board, and the party narrowly won a by-election for the upper house seat (Kachin-2) in November 2018, thanks to low overall turnout combined with virtually unanimous voting in military cantonments.

Supporters rally for the party at an event held by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Kachin State on October 4, 2015. (Steve Tickner)
A lot has changed in five years: NLD supporters throng an election rally held by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myitkyina on October 4, 2015. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

This year, however, political support seems split along ethnic lines in the township, which includes rural areas beyond the city limits. Among the ethnic Kachin community, at least, NLD support has waned. The party fell to third place, behind a Kachin party, in the 2018 by-election. Meanwhile, several Kachin parties that did poorly in 2015 have since merged to form the Kachin State People’s Party. Judging from the chatter in Myitkyina’s tea shops and beer stations, the KSPP is poised to present a significant challenge to the NLD and USDP in November.

“The youth have tried to unite since 2014 but it had not been successful,” said Seng Nu Pan, a 26-year-old lawyer and activist and a KSPP candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat. “After 2015, by the effort of the youth and the people, the parties have united,” she told Frontier.

She said she’s disappointed with what she called the NLD’s “failed promise” of more transparency surrounding the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam – a stalled hydroelectric project at the nearby confluence of the Mali and N’mai, the source of the Ayeyarwaddy River. The project remains deeply controversial, raising concerns over grave environmental damage and community dispossession, as well as uncertainties over who would benefit from the power it would generate.

How votes were split between parties in 2015. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

Seng Nu Pan said she’s also worried about a proposed 300,000-acre project in Khaunglanhpu Township in northern Kachin, where Australian-backed Fortuna Metals has applied to conduct a feasibility study to mine gold and other metals. Residents of the area have raised concerns of losing their land if the plan moves forward.

While economic growth takes pride of place on her policy agenda, she wants its proceeds to accrue at a more local, grassroots level, and she’s wary of large-scale Chinese projects she says often lack transparency.

“We want to support small and medium-sized businesses,” she told Frontier. “If everything is done by big Chinese companies, small local businesses will not have access to markets. Chinese projects have damaged our agricultural land. They don’t care for the environment, they don’t care for human rights.”

Seng Nu Pan, 26, KSPP candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw, seen here on July 21, says she is disappointed with the NLD’s ‘failed promises’. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Lum Tu, a 33-year-old electronics shop owner and KSPP supporter, agrees on the need for economic growth but thinks China could actually be part of the solution. “There are many young people with no income here,” he said. “Most villagers raise pigs, but there aren’t good markets to sell them to. Corn grown in villages could be sold to corn mills in China, to the benefit of corn growers.” Too much food now just goes spoilt, he said.

He believes NLD support remains strong primarily among non-Kachin migrants to the state, who he says have become a majority in Myitkyina.

Data from the General Administration Department says that 50.15pc of the township’s population of 244,151 is ethnic Kachin. The next largest bloc is the Bamar, at 28.3pc, followed by the Shan, at 9.91pc. The ethnic breakdown from the 2014 census, which may be more accurate, has not been released.

“All Bamar support the NLD,” Lum Tu claimed. “Many people from lower parts of Myanmar come to work here on road and bridge construction. They come with their family and they sometimes don’t go back.”

Lum Tu, 33, at his mobile and electronics shop in Myitkyina on July 21. (Hkun Lat)
Lum Tu, 33, at his mobile and electronics shop in Myitkyina on July 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

A change in the election by-laws earlier this year allows internal migrants resident in a township for at least 90 days to transfer their vote to that township, rather than a previous 180-day residency requirement. The KSPP and other ethnic parties, fearing this would dilute their share of votes, protested the change.

But Kachin-based ethnic groups are also split politically. The Lisu, for instance, who often reject belonging to an umbrella “Kachin” ethnic identity, largely vote for the Du Lay (crossbow) party, properly called the Lisu National Development Party, Lum Tu said. His answer for a more unified Kachin state? “The KSPP is not just an [ethnic] Kachin party – they are now campaigning as a party that everyone can join,” he said. “If we all unite behind one Kachin [State] party, we may win against the NLD.”

Aung Myat, a 23-year-old field officer for a local civil society organisation, hopes that better access to education will be taken up as an election issue.

“In Kachin State there are not many places to study, and government-run libraries don’t’ have enough teaching materials and books,” he said. He also wants a better system in place to help students navigate applying for and receiving scholarships.

How voters turned out in 2015. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

November will be Aung Myat’s first time voting. He said he’s unsatisfied with the performance of his current representatives in parliament, who seem distant and out of touch with their constituents.

“My single vote is essential,” he said. “I believe that if we vote for the party we believe in, it can fulfil our needs when it is elected.” His own vote will, like Lum Tu, be cast for the KSPP.

“I have decided not to vote for the political party that comes from lower Myanmar,” he told Frontier, in what seemed like a reference to the NLD or USDP, who have both been at the helm of government. “I have been under their rule, and I know it does not work.” 

Still, everyone’s hopes – for local economic growth, for better access to healthcare and education – are all for naught without a more lasting security for all, and an end to Kachin State’s “forever war”.

“I wish [elected officials] would accelerate the peace process,” Lum Tu said. “Only if there is peace will business flourish.”

Kachin National Congress party supporters rally in Myitkyina on August 25. (Hkun Lat)
Kachin National Congress party supporters rally in Myitkyina on September 10. (J.M. Elizabeth)

‘Our feet are tied’: Candidates in Myitkyina hobbled by COVID-19 restrictions

Ethnic parties are battling larger, national ones by focusing on state-level issues in the Kachin State capital, but the pandemic has made it hard to reach rural, offline voters.

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 to the bottom for the first article on Myitkyina.

By PYAE SONE AUNG | FRONTIER

Restrictions on large gatherings to curb COVID-19 have made the election campaign period more subdued than in 2015, but in the Kachin State capital of Mytikyina, visual proof of the November election is everywhere. People wearing t-shirts and masks with different party logos throng through the streets and markets of the northern city on the Ayeyarwady River.

Party swag is one way candidates are trying to build name recognition while still adhering to health measures. Ze Lum, a campaign manager from the United Democratic Party, said the party has run out of t-shirts several times and has had to order more.

Unlike in 2015, candidates cannot hold public meetings at churches, monasteries or large community halls. Instead, they are exhausting themselves by traipsing door-to-door in as many villages and wards in their constituencies as they can. 

“We have many problems on the ground,” said Kachin State People’s Party candidate Lum Zawng, who’s running for a Kachin State Hluttaw seat in the neighbouring constituency of Waingmaw-2. This seat is currently held by the National League for Democracy, the party that controls the state government and has the largest share of seats in the state hluttaw.

Kachin women in traditional dress rally for the National League for Democracy in Myitkyina ahead of the 2015 election. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

“Some villages in my constituency are far from the town and the roads are sometimes bad, but candidates are not allowed to stay overnight in villages,” he said, referring to a ban imposed as a local measure against COVID-19. “Travelling back and forth from the city is very time-consuming and ineffective.”

Still, in Myitkyina, national parties like the NLD and ethnic parties like the KSPP are pressing ahead by holding small gatherings and canvassing household by household.

“NLD members from wards and villages who own spacious compounds are organising gatherings of up to 50 people,” the maximum number allowed by the health ministry, said Ndung Hka Naw, the party’s candidate for the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Kachin-11, which encompasses Myitkyina and is currently held by the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. “As well as following the instructions, we also provide masks and hand sanitiser to those who attend,” he told Frontier.

Other parties have resorted to vehicle convoys. Lum Zawng said younger KSPP supporters have been touring the township on bicycles and motorbikes.

National parties, however, have suspended vehicle convoys locally. Ostensibly this is a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, but in recent weeks there have been media reports of large NLD and USDP vehicle rallies elsewhere in Myanmar.

NLD candidate Ndung Hka Naw said the party is worried that convoys through downtown Myitkyina could attract crowds large enough to breach COVID-19 rules.

Chairperson for the USDP’s Myitkyina branch U Nyunt Win said the party has also suspended convoys for the time being.

The relatively small-scale campaigning in Kachin State has helped it to avoid ugly clashes between NLD and USDP supporters that have broken out elsewhere, mainly in Bamar-majority areas. The dust ups have received widespread criticism on social media.

Supporters of the Tai-Leng Nationalities Development Party campaign on the Ayeyarwady River in Myitkyina on August 25. (J.M. Elizabeth)

“Parties here seem to be following the regulations and have resisted launching big campaign events that would raise health concerns among voters,” said Reverend Hkalam Samsom, president of the influential Kachin Baptist Convention. “I don’t see conflicts between the red and the green this time either,” he added, referring to the NLD and USDP by their colours.

But along with the perks of incumbency, the governing NLD’s name recognition infers it a greater advantage amid the pandemic restrictions, which make it harder for smaller and newer parties to raise awareness. In its campaign, the NLD has largely focused on the personality of its leader, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – a face familiar to all.

“The incumbent party automatically has advantages, and they are amplified during the pandemic,” said Lum Zawng. “Our feet are tied. [The election] is free but it is not fair.” 

“Government officials are wearing [NLD] party badges and logos while distributing COVID-19 relief funds as if it is the party providing handouts to the people,” said Myitkyina Township USDP chairperson Nyunt Win. 

Election observers and political analysts in Myitkyina told Frontier that the UDP, also known as the hninsi (rose) party because of its logo, is the most well-resourced party. But UDP campaign manager Ze Lum denied accusations lodged by some that the party has been handing out cash or promising jobs to people who’ve applied to join the party. 

Hkalam Samsom said the UDP’s image was badly damaged after its chairperson, U Michael Kyaw Myint, was arrested on September 28 for escaping from police custody in the late 1990s. 

Michael Kyaw Myint was until recently an obscure figure, before Myanmar Now published an expose on October 2 highlighting the party leader’s questionable past, which includes links to the United Wa State Army, an arrest in the 1990s for suspected money laundering and an escape from a Myanmar prison in 1999. 

Campaigns in Myitkyina are also being fought on social media.

“I often stumble across ‘live’ campaigns on Facebook by KSPP candidates – especially younger ones like Seng Nu Pan – in which they deliver messages and information about the party and its candidates to voters,” said Mung San Aung, a journalist from Myitkyina who now lives in Yangon. 

In addition to Facebook Live, Pyithu Hluttaw candidate for Myitkyina Seng Nu Pan, 26, told Frontier she uses Zoom to hold meetings with her constituents. The digital tools are “useful” because of the pandemic, she said, but they’re “not very effective since not all people have access to Facebook or [other communication apps] in our area.” 

Seng Nu Pan, 24, Kachin State People’s Party candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw, poses for a portrait on July 24. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

More than national parties, ethnic parties such as the KSPP, which was formed by a merger of several Kachin parties that competed in 2015, have focused on issues particular to the state. These include fighting drug abuse, resisting pernicious Chinese investment and amending the military-drafted 2008 Constitution to give states more autonomy. 

On October 9, Doi Bu, the KSPP vice-chair, released a short video on Facebook introducing the party’s mission. Its ultimate objectives, she said, include lasting peace, a federal democracy, the termination of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project, which is located about 40 kilometres north of Myitkyina, and waging a war on drugs that includes rehabilitation for addicts. She said the KSPP will partner with other ethnic parties that have the same goals and policies.

Seng Nu Pan’s main priorities stem from her own work history. 

“My background is in activism concerning IDP camps and women’s empowerment, and I am promising voters I’ll make progress on these issues when I am elected,” she said. 

The KSPP and other ethnic parties have taken inspiration from the strong wins the Arakan National Party and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy saw in Rakhine and Shan states, respectively, in the 2015 general election and subsequent by-elections. 

“We aim to become a powerful third force on the path to a federal democratic union,” Seng Nu Pan told Frontier, suggesting that the two main forces in Myanmar politics now are the NLD, on one side, and the USDP-Tatmadaw alliance, on the other. 

Lum Zawng said the KSPP hopes to win control of the state hluttaw so it can push for more autonomy and resource-sharing with the central government – even though the constitution gives the president the power to appoint the chief minister of Kachin regardless of which party wins the most seats in the state.

“KSPP candidates are contesting every constituency in Kachin State, except those for [non-Kachin] ethnic affairs ministers,” he said. “With 53 seats in the Kachin Hluttaw including 13 reserved for the military, we will control the legislature if we win 30 seats.”

Hkun Lat

Hkun Lat

Hkun Lat is a documentary photographer based in Yangon. He works on his own projects and on assignment for international media and organisations.
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