Chin parties had hoped to capitalise on disaffection with the National League for Democracy to win a seat in the foothills of the Rakhine Yoma, but a last-minute change to regional hluttaw boundaries appears to have put paid to any chance of an upset victory.
By NAY AUNG | FRONTIER
Constituency realignments are controversial in many countries, particularly when political parties and governments use it as a pretext to “gerrymander” seat boundaries to enhance their chances of victory in future elections.
In Myanmar, that has rarely been the case since the country resumed holding elections in 2010. This is in part because the constitution bases lower house boundaries on township divisions, providing little scope to play with the borders for political gain.
In the Amyotha Hluttaw and state and region assemblies, though, there are possibilities for boundaries to be drawn to suit political interests. And in one small township in the foothills of the Rakhine Yoma, that is precisely what is being alleged.
Ngape is a sparsely populated township in western Magway Region that straddles the border with Chin State. Much of it is scenic mountains dotted with villages inhabited by ethnic Chin, while the Bamar dominate the more densely populated lowland areas. The township is bisected by the Minbu-Ann Highway – the main gateway to Rakhine State – but the town of Ngape itself is something of a backwater, a 15-kilometre drive north from the busy route.
The township had barely 35,000 voters in 2015, and the National League for Democracy easily won all seats, with around 70 percent of the vote, ahead of the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
This year, though, Chin parties had expected to make a strong push in Ngape-2, which includes 10 village tracts mainly inhabited by Asho Chin people. The Chin National League for Democracy and Asho Chin National Party were among seven parties that had registered to contest the vote, the rest being predominantly national parties dominated by Bamar.
Much to the dismay of the Chin parties, the Union Election Commission, which is responsible for setting constituency boundaries, made a late decision to move the borders in Ngape. The regional hluttaw constituency boundaries, which previously ran north-south, with the Chin villages all in the westerly constituency, have now been reversed so they run east west, the parties say. The Chin voters are now split between the two constituencies, which Chin parties claim has diminished their chances of victory. “It’s a major blow to us,” said U Han Kyaw, secretary of the Asho Chin National Party, which contested Ngape-2 in 2015.
“We only found out about the constituency boundary change when we submitted our candidate’s application,” he said. “Most of the population that was in Ngape-2 is from our ethnic tribe … we think we can get the majority of their votes but now the constituency has been split differently, with many of the large ethnic Chin villages in Ngape-1.”
Both the Asho Chin National Party and CNLD have sent letters of complaint to the district sub-commission about the boundary change, but said they are yet to receive a response.
UEC and election sub-commission officials insist they have done nothing untoward. The changes made in Ngape were routine demarcations carried out prior to this year’s vote to update boundaries used in the 2015 general election, said a UEC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said that in demarcating boundaries, the only requirement was that the boundary does not divide a ward or village tract. “Since we have not divided any wards or village tracts, there’s nothing wrong with it,” the official said.
In demarcating constituencies, the UEC draws on data from the General Administration Department. Changes were also made in Pwintbyu, where Magway Region Chief Minister Dr Aung Moe Nyo is running, and Gangaw, the constituency of regional Minister for Natural Resources, Environment, Electricity and Energy U Myint Zaw.
Magway Region sub-commission secretary U Soe Htut Oo said the changes in Ngape were in accordance with electoral laws.
“We did it to close the population gap between the two regional hluttaw constituencies,” he said, adding that constituencies must be continuous and there should not be much difference in population in state and regional hluttaw constituencies within the same township. “In this case, regional hluttaw constituency No 1 had a population of about 20,000 while constituency No 2 had only about 10,000 … to make them equal with about 15,000 each, we put some villages in No 2 constituency.”
However, figures for the 2015 election show that the constituencies were already evenly split in terms of population: constituency No 1 had 17,552 voters, while No 2 had 18,560.
Asked about the previous voter figures, Soe Htut Oo said the UEC made the decision to change the boundaries.
But it’s not just Chin parties who see the boundary change as unfair. U Aung Naing Lynn, the USDP spokesperson for Magway Region, said the last-minute change had upset candidates’ campaign plans, which were based on the original boundaries.
“The way I see it, it seems like they are preventing small ethnic parties from coming onto the field even before the match has started,” Aung Naing Lynn said.
Candidates from other parties have also been unable to campaign in Chin villages in the mountains because residents are refusing to allow outsiders to enter, in order to control the spread of COVID-19, he said.
U Phoe, a Central Executive Committee member of the CNLD, said the UEC should have discussed the changes with political parties before announcing them.
He was also critical of the decision to amend the boundaries so late in the process. When constituencies for Ngape were first announced in July, they used the previous boundaries from 2015, but were later changed, he said.
Frontier was unable to confirm when the boundaries were formally changed. Soe Htut Oo insisted that all demarcations had been undertaken according to the procedures in place.
“I think the commission did it intentionally – both the government and UEC are turning a blind eye to the rights of ethnic people,” said U Phoe, who is competing to be Chin ethnic affairs minister in Magway Region.
Whether a Chin party like the CNLD really had a chance of winning a seat in Ngape is unclear, however.
In 2015, the Asho Chin National Party won just 7.41pc of the vote in Ngape-2, barely one-tenth of the NLD candidate’s tally.
However, GAD figures suggest that Chin voters could potentially be a formidable bloc. A township profile of Ngape released in 2019 says the Chin community makes up 28.76pc of Ngape’s total population, with Bamar accounting for nearly all the rest.
While Chin communities seem to have voted strongly for the NLD in 2015, U Phoe claimed that the current lawmakers for Ngape – who are not standing for re-election – are both unpopular.
“They never visit their constituencies,” he said. “Our people know that only a Chin person can work for our community.”
The mountainside villages suffer from a range of problems, including transportation difficulties, limited education and healthcare, and lack of employment opportunities.
Resident Mai Pann Ye agreed that Chin people were disappointed with the NLD government. As well as being disappointed at the lack of investment in services, she said they believed the government had failed to control opium poppy cultivation and illegal logging in the mountains.
Salai Aye Min, a Chin resident of Gokgyi village in Ngape, said some residents in Chin areas of the township felt ignored by the incumbent NLD representatives and had hoped for the chance to elect a candidate from a Chin party.
“The current MPs have never even visited some of the villages. They would have to walk over the hills to get from village to village – only ethnic Chin MPs would make the effort to reach all areas,” he said. “The realignment of the constituencies will weaken the chances of Chin parties.”