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Tale of Five Elections

Bawlakhe

Rural Bawlakhe Township under a monsoon sky. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The boss of Bawlakhe: In a Kayah township, one man outshines The Lady

The lavish spending of former naval commander U Soe Thane may keep Bawlakhe safe for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, and COVID-19 restrictions are making matters harder for competitors.

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 Bawlakhe.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

Early in September, as official campaigning began, Kayah State found itself in an enviable position: it was the only state or region in Myanmar free of COVID-19 cases. Then, on October 15, the seemingly inevitable happened: Kayah announced its first case.

But the state was never exempt from guidelines set by the Union Election Commission for the campaign period, which ends on November 6, two days before the election. They limit rallies to no more than 50 people and include social distancing and other measures. 

So Kayah’s lone COVID-19 case hasn’t changed much for candidates in Bawlakhe Township, where 40 from eight parties and one independent are vying for five open seats. Several told Frontier their strategies have consisted mostly of trying to engage voters by canvassing door-to-door while keeping a safe distance, and holding rallies of fewer than 50 people.

Union Solidarity and Development Party MP U Kyaw Than, who is seeking re-election to the Kayah-3 seat in the Amyotha Hluttaw, seems unconcerned.

“I don’t mind not being able to hold events with many people. My constituents know me well and I’ve explained to them what I’ve been doing in parliament for the past five years,” he said.

Map created by Thibi

Bawlakhe is far from the only township in Myanmar where incumbents are more sanguine about the restrictions than their challengers. However, it is one of the few places where politics is dominated by a single politician who isn’t Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The township is a USDP stronghold. The military-backed party swept Bawlakhe’s seats in 2015, creating an island of green in a state that overwhelmingly turned red. Of the seven seats it won in the state, four – both state hluttaw seats and one seat each in the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw – were in Bawlakhe.

The other Amyotha Hluttaw seat in Bawlakhe, Kayah-9, was won by an independent, U Soe Thane. The former Tatmadaw naval commander and president’s office minister was prevented from competing under the USDP banner by a factional squabble within the party. He has returned to the USDP this year to contest the Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Bawlakhe.

Known for his wealth – and for spending significant chunks of that wealth directly on voters – Soe Thane’s continued largesse makes for a David-and-Goliath-like competition with his main challenger, the NLD’s Sai Lin Lin Oo.

As Frontier previously reported, for many Bawlakhe residents, elections are a chance to cash in, and no one has quite as much cash to offer as Soe Thane. In May of this year he donated an ambulance worth more than K10 million to the Bawlakhe-based Forever Hands Social Welfare Association.

“We don’t care what seat he runs for, as long as he is running in Bawlakhe,” said U Zaw Zaw Oo, the association’s leader. He believes most of the association’s 3,200 members will vote for Soe Thane with him.

“Perhaps not all members, but I can guarantee that the votes of 720 permanent members will go to Soe Thane; this is the only way we can thank him for what he has done for us,” he told Frontier in August.

U Soe Thane as minister of industry gives a speech during the 18th International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo on May 25, 2012. (AFP)

These votes will go a long way in a township with little more than 8,000 voters, and even NLD candidates acknowledge Soe Thane’s power.

“Speaking frankly, he could still maintain [the USDP’s] stronghold in Bawlakhe,” said Daw Mi Mi Maw, the NLD candidate for the state seat of Bawlakhe-1. His image as the township’s patron-in-chief was so firmly rooted in residents’ minds, she said, that  “even if a bridge is built with government funds, they will call it the U Soe Thane bridge”.

Mi Mi Maw also feels disadvantaged by the COVID-19 restrictions.

“I really wanted to hold big events to shore up support, to flip Bawlakhe from a green to a red zone,” she said. “But I have to prioritise people’s health over winning an election.” Instead, she’s been holding small campaign events and canvassing door-to-door, but she said she doubts this will be as effective.

“In my experience, local people are very honest and very stubborn. It is very difficult to get them to change,” she told Frontier. “They assume that U Soe Thane has done many things for them and say they are in debt to him – that if they don’t vote for him they will be in debt to him for the rest of their lives.”

Mi Mi Maw had to get special approval from the NLD’s central executive committee to contest the November election for the party, after breaching a core NLD principle by standing for another party in a previous election.

In 2015 she stood for the state assembly’s Bawlakhe-2 seat as a Kayah Unity Democracy Party candidate but lost to the USDP candidate.

NLD township chair Sai Gyi believes the party lost all seats in 2015 partly because it chose non-residents as candidates.

“I don’t want to lose this time. To make sure we win as many seats as possible, I asked the party to accept Mi Mi Maw, a local resident, as a candidate,” he told Frontier. “Senior party officials accepted my request for the sake of the party.”

NLD candidate for the state seat of Bawlakhe-1 Daw Mi Mi Maw incorporates voter education into her election campaign. (Supplied)

When Frontier travelled to Bawlakhe in July, most residents said they were yet to decide who to vote for, but there were already indications of a strong reservoir of support for Soe Thane.

Despite this, Sai Gyi says he’s confident the NLD will do better than it did in 2015, when the local authorities made it hard for him to field candidates and recruit party members, and the presence of three Tatmadaw battalions and a Tatmadaw-aligned Border Guard Force in the sparsely populated township made it dangerous to oppose the military-backed USDP.

“At the time, the authorities threatened to kill residents if they joined the NLD,” he said. “In military-dominated areas, people were seriously oppressed. I was stomped on with army boots and sent to jail very often.”

Those fears have gradually diminished under the NLD government, he said.

“There is more interest in joining the party. I now have more than 1,000 members. People have come to understand that, even though the USDP won locally, it couldn’t do anything without control of the central government. This year they know that they need to vote for candidates from the party that will form the government.”

NLD township chair Sai Gyi says the heavy military presence in Bawlakhe once made it dangerous to be associated with his party. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Residents and local MPs say that, because of the NLD and USDP’s inability to work together, Bawlakhe has been “left behind” for the last five years.

“The [central] government doesn’t want to help us because its candidates lost here, and our USDP MPs can’t do much when the government ignores their requests,” said U Win Maung, a resident of the township’s Ywathit village. “No wonder we’ve been left behind and are still living in poverty.”

But NLD membership in Bawlakhe is still just half that of the USDP’s 2,000. With Soe Thane’s largesse and the township’s 1,200-plus military votes, the USDP may yet celebrate another landslide in November. “I would be very proud if the NLD won only three [out of five] seats in Bawlakhe,” said Sai Gyi.

U Aye Maung, the USDP township chairman and Pyithu Hluttaw MP, was confident his party could hold Bawlakhe. “We MPs have had some problems in the NLD-dominated parliament … but we did our best, and people know that,” he said. .

He’s standing aside this November to let Soe Thane contest his seat, he said, “because he can do a better job than me of representing the interests of the local people.”

KySDP township chair Saw Nee Ni says that, with few funds and no party office in Bawlakhe, his party has little chance of victory. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Meanwhile, the Kayah State Democratic Party’s township chair, Saw Nee Ni, is gloomy about his party’s prospects in Bawlakhe. The party is a merger of two Kayah-based ethnic parties, the Kayah Unity Democracy Party and the All Nationalities Democracy Party, which both did poorly in 2015. The new party enjoys considerable momentum elsewhere in the state, partly thanks to the backing of ethnic civil society activists who supported the NLD in 2015, but it has only around 200 members in Bawlakhe and very little money.

“Although we’re contesting all seats [in the township], we don’t even have a party office or funds to support our candidates, who are campaigning with their own money,” he told Frontier. “We’re not sure it’ll work.”

While resurgent ethnic parties are poised to redraw the electoral map across much of Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands, in Bawlakhe, it seems, it’s better the devil you know.

A girl cycles past a USDP campaign billboard in Bawlakhe Township, Kayah State, on August 21. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe)
A girl cycles past a USDP campaign billboard in Bawlakhe Township, Kayah State, on August 21. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Bawlakhe Township: Poverty, patronage and the polls

A township in the green, humid centre of Kayah State is a magnet for parties and candidates looking to splurge cash on a tiny electorate in exchange for an easy win.

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 Bawlakhe, as well as Mayangone in Yangon Region, Myitkyina in Kachin State, Mrauk-U in Rakhine State and Pyawbwe in Mandalay Region.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

Bawlakhe Township, in a hot, low-lying valley in mountainous Kayah State, generally attracts few visitors. The overwhelmingly rural township at the centre of the state is home to about 10,000 residents, of whom more than half are ethnic Kayah. Shan are the next largest community, with a small number of other households belonging to Karen, Chin, Bamar and Rakhine families.

But as an election nears, a certain class of visitor flocks to the township: politicians.

They are drawn for a simple reason. Votes in Myanmar are not created equal, and while a ballot cast in a densely populated township of Yangon has little weight, in thinly populated Bawlakhe, a ballot is virtually weighted in gold.

Map created by Thibi

Voter constituencies are based on administrative divisions. There is one Pyithu Hluttaw, or lower house, seat for each township in the country, regardless of its size, and each township is divided into two seats in the relevant state or regional hluttaw. This creates vast discrepancies in the number of voters allocated to different constituencies – a phenomenon that election scholars call malapportionment. In electing a Pyithu Hluttaw MP, a ballot cast by one of Bawlakhe’s 8,107 eligible voters is worth about 30 times that of a voter in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township, which had 262,308 voters in 2015.

The demarcation of constituencies for the Amyotha Hluttaw boosts the influence of a Bawlakhe voter even further. Although they contain hugely varying numbers of townships, each state and region is allotted 12 upper house seats. So, while in Shan State, which has 55 townships, Amyotha Hluttaw constituencies span multiple townships, in Kayah State, which has only seven townships, most upper house constituencies span only half a township – including in Bawlakhe.

With a relatively tiny number of voters to woo, the field is predictably crowded in the run-up to the November election. Forty-one candidates from eight parties plus an independent are vying for the five seats up for grabs in Bawlakhe. This is an increase in competition from the last election in 2015, when six parties competed.

The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is the incumbent in all but one seat, will contest all races. So will the ruling National League for Democracy, which won the largest haul of seats elsewhere in Kayah in the 2015 election, and the Kayah State Democracy Party, which was formed by the merging of two Kayah-based ethnic parties and is supported by ethnic civil society activists who largely backed the NLD in 2015.

“Political parties’ interest in standing in Bawlakhe has not diminished because they can win with a small number of votes,” said U Kyaw Lin, secretary of the election sub-commission for Bawlakhe District, which contains Bawlakhe and the townships of Mese and Hpasawng at the southern end of the state.

An additional draw, he said, is that “the situation is more stable than other areas.” He was referring to the lack of armed conflict in Bawlakhe, where the military retains tight control with three infantry battalions, supplemented by a Border Guard Force, as ethnic armed groups that come under Tatmadaw command are called.

By far the best-known incumbent in Bawlakhe is U Soe Thane, a former naval commander who was a President’s Office minister in the USDP government. Though the retired vice admiral won the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Kayah-9 in 2015 as an independent, his lack of party affiliation was due to a factional rift within the USDP, in which he got on the wrong side of powerful parliamentary speaker U Shwe Mann. He’s returned to the USDP fold this year to contest the Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Bawlakhe.

Soe Thane is a wealthy man, and to many residents, elections are a question of how his largesse gets doled out. Residents and political parties say Soe Thane handed out mobile phones and other gifts in 2015 ahead of the official campaign period.

In addition, he used his influence as a senior minister in the USDP government to direct government funds to building roads, bridges and schools in Bawlakhe, despite having been elected to represent Kyunsu in Tanintharyi Region in the previous election. He also supported the renovation of Christian and Buddhist religious buildings and donated at least one emergency vehicle.

This patronage has returned ahead of this year’s election. A member of the Forever Hands Social Welfare Association, based in Bawlakhe, confirmed to Frontier that Soe Thane donated an ambulance worth more than K10 million in May.

Certificate for Pyithu Hluttaw candidate U Soe Thane’s donation of an ambulance to the Forever Hands Social Welfare Association. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Sai Lin Lin Oo, 27, is running as an NLD candidate for the USDP-held Pyithu Hluttaw seat. His toughest competition, he said, will be Soe Thane’s wallet.

“When voters hear U Soe Thane’s name, they think they will get money. It’s become a habit,” said the former Kantarawaddy Times journalist, who is a member of a legislative advisory committee to the Kayah State parliament and one of the main architects of the NLD’s social media campaign strategy across the state.

“I can’t afford to spend like him,” he said. “The only way I can [win] is to go into the community and meet as many people as possible, explaining to them that I understand their needs because I am a Bawlakhe resident. I remind them that U Soe Thane has not been here for five years to listen to the people.”

The need to maintain physical distance from voters in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 will make this intimate form of campaigning difficult. But Lin Lin Oo expects strong backing from the NLD in the form of volunteers for his campaign. It helps that his father chairs the party’s township central executive committee, of which he is also a member.

NLD candidate Sai Lin Lin Oo says the biggest challenge in taking the Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Bawlakhe is the wallet of his USDP rival. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The desire for quick material rewards is heightened this year by the failure of the area’s staple sesame crop, which is planted in June and harvested from September. Locals otherwise eke out a living as daily wage labourers or run small businesses, such as the small grocery shops that line the main town, but many struggle to get by.

However, Lin Lin Oo hopes to persuade voters that well-thought-out policies for economic development will benefit them more in the long run than handouts from opportunistic politicians. “I want to create job opportunities and economic development through regional development projects,” he said. “That’s my first priority.”

Nang May Thin Kyu, who is in her second year at Loikaw University, has the same priorities. But for the 20-year-old student, that means voting in her first ever election this November for the USDP. She said her entire family will too.

“My biggest wish is to get a job after I graduate so I can support my parents. I hope the candidates I vote for create job opportunities for young people,” she said.

But U Win Maung, a 66-year-old furniture shop owner in Ywathit – a village some 40 kilometres by winding mountain road from Bawlakhe town – said most people in the township see only short-term benefits in elections.

Business owner U Win Maung in Ywathit village laments the low political literacy of local voters. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

One of the short-term benefits come in the form of party signboards. Residents who host them on their property can typically expect a one-off payment of K50,000. These signboards are now visible throughout Bawlakhe Township, including in rural areas – evidence of a pre-election economic stimulus rather than political enthusiasm.

“Most villagers are poor and uneducated,” said Win Maung, whose vote is undecided. “When government officials ask them to attend meetings about village affairs, the first thing they want to know is how much money they’ll get.”

“Most people will vote for the candidate who can give them something.”

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

Ei Ei Toe Lwin

Ei Ei Toe Lwin began working as a journalist in 2010 when she joined the Myanmar Times and has been reporting on Myanmar political affairs for around a decade. Prior to joining Frontier in July 2020 she was chief of staff of the English and Myanmar versions of the Myanmar Times.
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