Former Tatmadaw vice admiral U Soe Thane can take much of the credit for the USDP’s sweep of seats in the Kayah State township of Bawlakhe – one of the military-aligned party’s few wins on November 8.
This is the final article about Bawlakhe in Frontier’s Tale of Five Elections series. We have followed the election in five townships across the country, capturing events and local voices through the contest and its aftermath. Scroll down for the first three articles on Bawlakhe.
By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER
The National League for Democracy’s overwhelming election victories on November 8 included flipping several previous Union Solidarity and Development Party strongholds from green to red, but the sparsely-populated Kayah State township of Bawlakhe remains an oasis of green. There, the military-backed party swept all five seats.
It helped that the township has three Tatmadaw battalions and a Border Guard Force. But perhaps even more important was the largesse of a 71-year-old former naval commander, U Soe Thane.
The former president’s office minister in the USDP government began his civilian political career in 2010, when he won the Pyithu Hluttaw seat of Kyunsu Township in Tanintharyi Region for the USDP. In 2015, amid ructions in the party, he won Kayah-9 in the Amyotha Hluttaw, a constituency within Bawlakhe, as an independent. He returned to the party fold this year as its candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat of Bawlakhe, which is currently held by U Aye Maung, also of the USDP.
Soe Thane defeated his NLD rival, Sai Lin Lin Oo, by 1,200 votes on November 8. This is a sizeable margin in Bawlakhe, which has little more than 8,000 voters – meaning even a small amount of spending by deep-pocketed candidates can go a long way. Of the 7,203 votes cast in the race, Soe Thane received 3,296 to Lin Lin Oo’s 2,062.
Soe Thane’s popularity owes much to his big local spending, and his image among residents as a powerful man who can get things done for their benefit. Ahead of the 2015 election, he distributed mobile phones and other gifts in the township, residents and local political party members said. He has continued to bestow largesse on the community – including the donation of an ambulance in May to a local charity – creating a sense of obligation among local voters, many of whom feel they need to thank him at the ballot box.
“U Soe Thane’s giving doesn’t just support individuals – he provides for the long-term benefit of all,” said U Zaw Zaw Oo, chair of the Bawlakhe-based charity, Forever Hands Social Welfare Association. “We can only repay him with votes.”
Other USDP candidates said they benefitted from Soe Thane’s influence as well.
“U Soe Thane’s support is crucial and has enabled us to achieve success again,” said U Kyaw Than, the party’s winning candidate for Kayah-3, one of two Amyotha Hluttaw constituencies within Bawlakhe. He defeated NLD challenger U Win Zaw by 1,498 votes to 1,099.
Kyaw Than denied claims that he won only because of the support of military voters, saying the USDP has been helping to develop Bawlakhe and uplift its people since 2010.
“I have supported the people as much as I can – that’s why they support us,” he told Frontier on November 12. “When I return to parliament, the first thing I will propose, again, is to build a bridge and a bypass road that were not approved by the outgoing parliament.”
Still, strong military support has undeniably contributed to the USDP’s continued success in Bawlakhe. The three Tatmadaw battalions and the Border Guard Force account for about 980 of the more than 8,000 voters in in the township, and almost all of their votes went to the USDP, even though soldiers and their family members were voting outside military cantonments for the first time because of a reform to election by-laws enacted this year.
They helped put the state hluttaw seat for Bawlakhe-1 in the hands of U Soe Reh, whose tally of 1,414 votes included 450 out of 556 votes cast by soldiers and their dependents. His NLD rival, Daw Mi Mi Maw, received 1,061 votes, of which only 10 came from the military. Soe Reh won the Bawlakhe-2 seat in 2015 but switched constituencies this year.
Mi Mi Maw said she “cannot win” so long as the USDP is able to rely on the military vote. “I feel sorry for those who voted for me, and I think the winning MP represents the army more than civilians,” she said.
NLD members allege that another reason for the USDP’s clean sweep in Bawlakhe was that its members had threatened voters.
“The day before the election, USDP members threatened to kill the residents of Wan Palet village if they voted for the NLD,” said NLD township chair Sai Gyi. “We have video evidence and are planning to file a complaint with the election sub-commission.”
USDP MP-elect Kyaw Than said the aggrieved NLD candidates were welcome to file a complaint if they had evidence. “They are attacking us all the time,” he said. “They say the USDP is a party of thieves and that the people will be under the military if they vote for it … But they have a hard time beating us [in Bawlakhe].”
U Kyaw Lin, secretary of the township sub-commission, said on November 19 that no complaints had yet been lodged.
Parties were lured by Bawlakhe’s tiny electorate – where an individual vote is dozens of times more consequential than in one of the larger Yangon townships with hundreds of thousands of registered voters – and competition was fierce. Nearly 40 candidates from seven parties (eight until the Union Democratic Party was dissolved) ran for the township’s five seats. Turnout, at about 88 percent, was far higher than in 2015, when it was just 55pc, according to the township sub-commission.
“The turnout was significant, but the number of invalid votes was high,” said Kyaw Lin, adding that the 921 invalid ballots accounted for about 12.7pc of the total. He said 80pc of them were due to voter error, which he attributed to a lack of voter education, and 20pc were due to mistakes made by polling staff mishandling ballots.
Lin Lin Oo, the NLD candidate defeated by Soe Thane, said he planned to educate the public for future elections. “People have little political knowledge; if we want to win next time we need to raise their political awareness,” he said.
Mi Mi Maw said the NLD also lacked unity and that many newer members were motivated more by self-interest than loyalty to the party. She claimed the USDP had conspired with the UDP, National Unity Party and the Kayah State Democratic Party to deny votes to the NLD, and had even paid NLD members to betray their party (Frontier could not confirm these allegations).
She herself had left the NLD and ran unsuccessfully in 2015 for the Bawlakhe-2 state hluttaw seat as a Kayah Unity Democracy Party candidate. “When I went back to the party, I found that some members were [secretly] working for other parties because they had been paid to do so,” said Mi Mi Maw.
She said a combination of the military vote, Soe Thane’s big spending and local poverty would probably help the USDP win Bawlakhe again in the next general election.
“Unless these things can be changed, Bawlakhe will be forever green.”