Overzealous campaigning by National League for Democracy supporters has stirred controversy in Sagaing Region by allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, but NLD members insist the party isn’t responsible.
By the MONYWA GAZETTE
In an appeal issued on social media on September 16, National League for Democracy vice-chair-2 Dr Zaw Myint Maung urged party supporters not to hold election rallies because they may violate the Natural Disaster Management Law.
But while the sight of candidates addressing large crowds of waving supporters has been absent during the campaign period, several parties have thronged the streets of cities, towns and villages with large convoys of supporters on trucks, cars and motorbikes.
On the same day as Zaw Myint Maung’s announcement, residents of Pale Township in southern Sagaing Region said more than a hundred NLD supporters had campaigned in apparent violation of restrictions issued by the Ministry of Health and Sports.
Similar to many townships in Myanmar’s central Dry Zone, the NLD won a clean sweep of seats in Pale in the 2015 election, taking one each in the Amyotha and Pyithu hluttaws and both regional assembly seats. The NLD had held the Pyithu Hluttaw seat since the 2012 by-election.
On September 16, eight days into the official campaign period, a convoy of NLD supporters in red t-shirts, hats and face masks branded with party symbols did a circuit of Pale town on light trucks, pick-ups and three-wheelers, blaring party songs and shouting slogans, before driving to Yinmabin town, about 15 kilometres to the north, residents told the Monywa Gazette.
Ko Hein, a native of Yinmabin, considered their behaviour inappropriate at a time when the country was grappling with a surge in COVID-19 infections. The convoys were visiting many towns and if any party supporters were carrying the virus it could be spread widely, he said.
“Even though their number was not more than 50 [in each vehicle], they didn’t respect social distancing,” he added, referring to a ban on crowds of more than 50 people, imposed by the health ministry in areas where campaigning has not been prevented by stay-at-home orders.
Ko Myo Htun, a resident of Pale town and an NLD supporter, was also critical of the party’s election convoys.
“Even though we want to show our support for the party, a responsible citizen would know that people may face a risk to their health because of our misconduct,” he said.
U Tin Swe, the USDP candidate for the seat of Pale-2 in the regional assembly, said the NLD convoy on September 16 had violated rules and restrictions imposed as part of the government’s COVID-19 prevention measures.
Responding to the criticism, U Nyo Htay, the secretary of the NLD in Pale Township, said those who participated in the convoy were self-motivated and he could not stop them from showing their love for the party.
Tin Swe of the USDP rejected the explanation, saying he did not believe that the convoy participants were acting by their own will.
“I believe that people from other towns came here because of instructions issued by authoritative people behind the scenes,” he said.
The Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Pale, Daw Khin San Hlaing, rejected the suggestion that the convoy was planned in advance.
“They are not doing this under the instructions of the NLD. People are travelling around town because they trust and support the party and want it to win,” the NLD lawmaker said, adding that the convoys had not been invited to call on party offices and lawmakers.
She emphasised the importance of strict adherence to the rules and restrictions issued by the health ministry, and said it was in the interest of all parties to stick to them to avoid being the target of complaints and accusations amid a highly competitive election race.
Responding to a question from the Monywa Gazette about the September 16 incident, U Htun Kyi, chair of the Pale Township election sub-commission, said candidates from each political party had been summoned and told to adhere to the election rules and regulations issued by the health ministry.
Apart from the NLD and USDP, the parties competing in Pale Township include the People’s Pioneer Party, Union Betterment Party, United Democratic Party, and National Unity Party. An independent, U Htun, is seeking election to the regional seat of Pale-1.
Pale Township has 124,000 eligible voters, To reduce crowding, the number of polling stations has been increased to 161, up from 130 in 2015.
U Zaw Htet, the NLD’s candidate for the Sagaing Hluttaw seat of Pale-1, said about 40 volunteers had provided training in COVID-19 precautions for people who will monitor polling stations on election day on behalf of the NLD.
The USDP’s Tin Swe said his party undertakes electioneering trips with five people in each vehicle who campaign in line with guidelines set by the UEC and health ministry.
Tin Swe said the ban on large campaign rallies because of COVID-19 meant that the NLD may lose an advantage it might otherwise have over the USDP, which is generally less able to muster large, enthusiastic crowds than the ruling party.
Representatives of smaller parties, however, felt they had overall been disadvantaged by the restrictions because they are less known to voters.
U Aung Nyein Chan, who is seeking election to the Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Pale for the United Democratic Party, said it was yet to properly launch its campaign because of the sharp increase in COVID-19 infections nationally – though the count remains low in Pale, at nine confirmed cases as of October 10.
The UDP’s campaign activities had been limited to erecting a billboard and handing out leaflets, he said. The UDP had wanted to hold large public rallies but they were impossible because of the restriction on gatherings of more than 50 people.
U Myint Aung, the Union Betterment’s Party’s candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat, said he and his party colleagues were campaigning door-to-door in Pale. But like the UDP, they would much rather be conducting rallies, which he considered a more efficient way of reaching a large number of voters.
“Door-to-door campaigning is tiring and not very effective,” he said.