Tale of Five Elections

Myitkyina

National League for Democracy supporters walk past a sign of Bogyoke Aung San at a rally led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myitkyina in 2015. (Steve Tickner)

COVID, corruption, incumbency? Kachin party shifts the blame after election defeat

Kachin State People’s Party members are split on who or what is to blame for their election failure on November 8 – but they’re sure it’s got nothing to do with them.

This is the final article about Myitkyina 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 Myitkyina.

By PYAE SONE AUNG | FRONTIER

Election day went smoothly in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. As in much of Myanmar, the queues were long, even though turnout was well below the national average of about 70 percent. In the end, more than 58pc of eligible voters turned up to cast their ballots in Myitkyina. And, as in much of Myanmar, the National League for Democracy claimed a thumping victory, with almost 54pc of the total vote.

The party performed even better in Kachin that five years ago, defying expectations and dashing the hopes of what some believed to be an ascendant Kachin State People’s Party. Many ethnic groups in the state feel marginalised, and during the campaign voters told Frontier they had been unhappy with the NLD’s performance on economic development, the peace process and constitutional reform.

But on November 8, the NLD dominated the Pyithu and Amyotha hluttaw races, and claimed 28 of the 40 elected seats in the state hluttaw – up from 26 seats five years ago. Even after 13 military lawmakers are factored in, the party will have an absolute majority in the state parliament and be able to appoint the speaker and deputy speaker.

Map by Thibi

The KSPP, meanwhile, limped away with just three seats in the state assembly, and one in the Pyithu Hluttaw. In Myitkyina, it won only 17pc of the vote, behind both the NLD and the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

“I wasn’t certain of victory before the official results came out,” said the NLD’s Daw Kay Ywe Aung, who won the Pyithu Hluttaw race in Myitkyina. “The USDP is always a strong rival, and the KSPP had also gained popularity in the state.”

The appeal of party chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the advantages of incumbency, and the NLD’s closer engagement with constituents during a campaign period otherwise muted by COVID-19 restrictions seem to have propelled it to sweeping electoral successes in Kachin.

“We are isolated most of the time, and no political parties introduced themselves to us, but NLD members helped us register to vote, so my whole family voted for them,” said U Myint Htay, a banana plantation worker who moved to Myitkyina from Ayeyarwady Region’s Myaungmya Township six years ago.

An électoral official checks the temperature of a voter outside a polling station in Myitkyina on November 8. (JM Elizabeth | Frontier)

Many KSPP candidates and members were left disappointed at their party’s performance. Formed by leaders of several ethnic Kachin parties in an attempt to present a united front to the public and avoid splitting the vote, the KSPP ended up doing no better than one of its predecessors, the Kachin State Democratic Party, which won three state hluttaw seats in 2015.

They blamed a host of different reasons for their poor showing, including COVID-19 campaign restrictions that limited them to gatherings of no more than 50 people.

Parties did organise some rallies in the first few weeks of October, but most were shut down and publicly criticised for potentially spreading COVID-19. This hindered newly-formed parties like the KSPP, who were still trying to get their name out, more than established parties like the NLD and the USDP.

“Our defeat is in a way a side effect of COVID-19,” Seng Nu Pan, the KSPP candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw, said in an online conference organized by a party candidate after their losses.

How votes were split between parties on November 8 (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

At times, the search for answers within the KSPP has seemed more like a blame-shifting exercise. Some in the KSPP alleged the government and election commission had tilted the playing field in favour of the NLD, while others have blamed migrant workers – reasons that largely failed to chime with the dismal number of votes the party received.

“We won in constituencies where we were able to introduce ourselves to voters, and we lost where we could not,” KSPP vice-chair Doi Bu told Frontier on November 9. “While our campaigns were muted, the NLD was absolutely free to campaign and rally.”

KSPP vice chairman-2 Gum Grawng Awng Hkam told Eleven Media that his party lost because of votes from an influx of Bamar migrant workers who voted for the NLD. Migrant voting was made easier by a change to election by-laws earlier this year, which allowed people to transfer their vote to a constituency if they have lived there for at least 90 days – down from 180 days previously.

“We were defeated by votes from migrant workers … Otherwise, there was no reason we could not win,” Gum Grawng Awng Hkam said.

Supporters of a rival Kachin party, the Kachin National Congress, campaign by motorbike in Myitkyina on August 25. The party won no seats in the November 8 election. (JM Elizabeth | Frontier)

Even without COVID-19 restrictions, the KSPP and the several other ethnic parties representing the diverse array of communities in Mytikyina had fewer resources to campaign with than larger, more established parties.

“Our campaign budget didn’t allow us to campaign in more than 100 wards in Myitkyina,” Seng Nu Pan said.

The Lisu National Development Party’s resources were even more constrained.

“While candidates from other parties managed to hold four or five meetings a day, we were struggling to organise just a handful of people,” LNDP Pyithu Hluttaw candidate U Nee Sar told Frontier.

By contrast, the NLD used its wide network of support to organise meetings across constituencies. Ndung Hka Naw San, who won the Amyotha Hluttaw seat encompassing Myitkyina, told Frontier in October he was “attending five, six meetings of around 50 people a day in spacious compounds owned by party members”.

How voters turned out on November 8. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

The NLD seems also to have convinced many voters that not voting for them would tilt the election toward the USDP, which might lead the country back to military rule, Doi Bu said. She said the NLD successfully portrayed ethnic parties as serving the interests of a single ethnic group, when they actually sought to represent entire states, in all their ethnic diversity – a claim that seems hard to square with the party’s post-election scapegoating of migrant workers living in Kachin. And although the KSPP seems to have gained significant support among Kachin youth, it clearly failed to attract much support outside of its own ethnic group.

Speaking before the election, Doi Bu also blamed this on COVID-19. “We’ve not been able to visit the areas where non-Kachin ethnic groups are concentrated. They’re fearful of COVID-19,” she said.

Besides the USDP disputing its losses in Hpakant, no serious complaints have been filed with the Kachin State election sub-commission, said U Htun Aung Khaing, its deputy director.

In Myitkyina, the USDP candidates have followed their losing party colleagues across the country in refusing to sign Form 19 confirming the outcome of the vote with the township sub-commission, but this is not required to certify the results. The party’s candidates have not returned repeated calls from Frontier.

While some KSPP members have described the campaign period and election process as unfair, it seems unlikely the party will file a formal complaint to the UEC, which would trigger a UEC-appointed tribunal with the power to overturn the result if there is evidence of cheating.

“Although the KSPP hasn’t won as many seats as expected,” KSPP chair Dr Manam Tuja told Radio Free Asia on November 13, “the vote is clean and we accept the result.”

A Tai-Leng (Shanni) Nationalities Development Party supporter campaigns in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, on August 25. (J.M. Elizabeth)

In Myitkyina, the result hinges on who turns out to vote

With support for parties split along ethnic lines, the election result in the diverse Kachin State capital will depend on which communities come out to vote, and which stay at home.

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 two articles on Myitkyina.

By PYAE SONE AUNG | FRONTIER

Low voter turnout has emerged as the primary concern for candidates from the Kachin State People’s Party and the National League for Democracy in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina, as election day approaches.

The city is home to the Tatmadaw’s Northern Command and hosts a large contingent of soldiers and their dependents, who these parties worry may rack up votes for the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. But the more that civilians turn out at polling stations, the more this military vote will be diluted.

“We are asking the people to be sure to vote and to vote for our party,” Doi Bu, KSPP vice-chair, told Frontier on October 29. She said many elderly and first-time voters in the rural villages of Myitkyina Township, where the KSPP has campaigned heavily, did not know when, where and how to vote.

In the 2015 election, about 121,899, or 68 percent, of the 178,579 registered voters cast ballots in Myitkyina, delivering the NLD a clean sweep of both state hluttaw seats and a seat each in the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw. However, the USDP won the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Myitkyina-2 in a 2018 by-election, a result partly attributed to very low turnout among the civilian population coupled with high military turnout.

Map created by Thibi

“People were not as well-informed or interested in the by-election as they were in the [2015] general election, while the USDP could rely on its hardcore voters in both elections,” Ndung Hka Naw San, the NLD candidate for the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Kachin-11, told Frontier on October 28.

About 230,000 Myitkyina residents are eligible to vote this year.

“If 80 percent of eligible voters in Myitkyina vote on election day, I am fairly confident that victory will be ours,” Ndung Hka Naw San said.

However, the KSPP, which was founded a year ago by the members of four Kachin parties in a bid to avoid a split ethnic vote, has quickly gained popularity and emerged as a strong rival to the NLD. There’s concern in both parties that, even with a high turnout, vote splitting between the two could mean the votes from Tatmadaw personnel and their families equal enough to tilt seats to the USDP in Myitkyina.

This year, the UEC has ordered military voters to join the general population in casting their ballots outside military cantonments – a decision aimed at greater transparency – but many still doubt that they will be able to vote freely.

Will the migrant vote tip the balance?

Besides soldiers and their families, Myitkyina is home to a large population of internal migrant workers, and there’s disagreement over how much they could influence the election. Ethnic parties worry that, because many of these migrants are Bamar, they could give the NLD or USDP the edge. This concern was heightened when, earlier this year, election by-laws were amended to enable internal migrants to register to vote in an area after only 90 days’ residency, down from 180 days previously.

Ethnic parties including the Kachin National Congress and the KSPP loudly protested this change. “We objected, but the UEC proceeded anyway,” said Doi Bu. “Migrant workers haven’t the slightest knowledge about ethnic parties, but they know the ruling NLD and the USDP, which they will vote for.”

“It is not fair that they lose their voting rights [when they change address], but it’s also not fair to us that they can decide the fate of Kachin State after living here for only 90 days,” said Paw Lu, a member of the Kachin Youth Movement. He suggested migrants be able to cast votes from wherever they are, but only for candidates running in their home constituencies.

NLD chair and state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi responded to these concerns by saying the NLD was a “Union” party that represented all ethnic groups, but that has only angered ethnic party members more. Seng Nu Pan, the KSPP candidate for Myitkyina’s Pyithu Hluttaw seat, called it “an insult” to suggest that the NLD could represent the interests of Kachin people.

But despite their potential to swing local races, others stress that actual turnout among migrant workers will be low. This partly due to a lack of interest on their part but also because of the burdensome procedure for transferring your vote from your home constituency to your current place of residence. To complete the required Form 3A by the October 10 deadline, applicants had to supply an endorsement from their employer or local ward or village tract administrator, among other documents.

“Tons of documents were needed to register,” said Ko Yan Aung Htun, a freelance journalist who moved to Myitkyina from Yangon three years ago. “The village tract and ward election sub-commissions asked migrant workers to provide a household registration list, National Registration Card [officially called a Citizenship Scrutiny Card], recommendation letters from the police and their employer – all sorts of documents,” he said.

U Myint Htay, 42, a Bamar migrant who lives and works on one of 30 tissue culture banana plantations run by the Chinese-owned Power Five Star Co Ltd in Myitkyina, estimates that few among the plantation’s 1,500-strong migrant workforce will be able to vote.

Supporters of the Kachin National Congress party campaign in Myitkyina on August 25. (J.M. Elizabeth)

“We [banana plantation workers] are quite separated from the outside world and many of us are not registered to vote [locally],” he told Frontier on October 28.

He himself is registered in Myitkyina, however, and he plans to vote for the NLD. He and several other workers at the plantation were assisted in registering by members of the NLD, who had an obvious incentive in helping migrants in this way.

Myint Htay, who had moved to Kachin from Myaungmya Township in Ayeyarwady Region, defended the right of migrants to vote locally, which he said was the only thing that kept them from disenfranchisement.

“We can’t return to where we were originally registered, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we want to vote for the party that we support,” he said

A curbed campaign

Campaigning in Myitkyina, like elsewhere in Myanmar, has been muted by COVID-19 restrictions and mainly reduced to door-to-door canvassing. But in recent weeks KSPP and NLD supporters have staged huge election convoys joined by hundreds of people.

“More than one thousand KSPP supporters toured Myitkyina on bikes before heading to the site of the Myitsone dam, making detours to small towns along the way,” Ma Esther, a reporter with local newspaper Myitkyina News Journal, told Frontier on October 27.

The big campaign events might have been an effective form of electioneering, but they attracted stern criticism from some Myitkyina residents and gradually faded away.

“The party central executive committee appealed to our supporters, especially the youth, to refrain from forming big crowds,” Doi Bu said, adding that the KSPP also wanted to avoid the campaign-related violence that has occurred between NLD and USDP supporters elsewhere in Myanmar.

The USDP, on the other hand, has run a disciplined campaign in Myitkyina, eschewing big events in favour of low key, local canvassing. “It is campaigning in other ways, such as by distributing face masks, sanitising gel, and t-shirts door-to-door,” said journalist Yan Aung Htun.

USDP representatives did not answer repeated phone calls from Frontier.

But the big three are not the only parties in town. Other contenders include the Kachin National Congress, Union Betterment Party, National Unity Party, Tai-Leng (Shanni) Nationalities Development Party and Lisu National Development Party. The latter two cater to sizeable ethnic minorities within Kachin State.

Myitkyina is a diverse city in a diverse state, and winning seats on Sunday will depend on cobbling together blocs among its multiethnic population – and then getting them to turn out on the day.

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.”

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.”

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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