Votes are counted at a polling station in Kaleh village tract in Kayin State's Kyainseikgyi Township on the evening of November 8. (Sa Yarzar Aung | Frontier)

Election defeat leaves Karen parties grappling for answers

A poor showing for Karen parties has re-opened discussions about forming one group to represent Karen interests – a strategy that served its southerly neighbours in the Mon Unity Party well on November 8.

By NAW BETTY HAN, LAWI WENG and BEN DUNANT | FRONTIER

“Not as successful as expected. They all lost.” 

That’s the blunt assessment of Mahn Aung Pyi Soe, chair of the Karen National Democratic Party, a merger of several Karen groups that came together in early 2018 in the hope of unifying the Karen vote.

It was a strategy that Aung Pyi Soe admits failed on November 8. 

“We hoped that we could win in some places, even if we didn’t win 100 percent of [Kayin] seats in the election. But we lost in every constituency,” the failed KNDP candidate for the Kayin State Hluttaw constituency of Hlaingbwe-2 told Frontier.

“But we don’t want to blame anyone. We have weaknesses. We need unity, and the time [to prepare] was short,” he said, stressing that the party had existed for fewer than three years. 

“We still have a lot of needs compared to the big party.” 

The “big party” Aung Pyi Soe refers to is, of course, the National League for Democracy. The NLD took 30 of the 36 seats in the Union and state parliaments in Kayin, including the Bamar and Pa-O ethnic affairs minister positions in the state government. This is one more Kayin seat than the NLD won in 2015. 

Young men in Karen clothing consult the voter list at a polling station in Kamain Kone village in Kayin State’s Kawkareik Township on November 8. (Sa Yarzar Aung | Frontier)

The KNDP was formed between members of the Karen Democratic Party, Karen State Democracy and Development Party, Karen United Democratic Party and Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party. The merger was intended to boost the performance of Karen parties after the 2015 election, when six parties representing Karen interests lost every national, state and regional parliamentary seat they contested – the only exception being the Kayin People’s Party, which won the Thandaunggyi-2 seat in the Kayin State Hluttaw.

The merger was not entirely successful, however. The KPP and Karen National Party did not dissolve to join the KNDP, and in 2019 some former PSDP members pulled out and re-established the old party, although others chose to stay put in the new party.

All these parties fielded candidates for the November 8 election, but the prospect of a split Karen vote was headed off by non-competition agreements. These allowed the KNDP to contest all seats in Kayin besides the two state assembly and two Union parliament seats in Thandaunggyi Township, which it left to the KPP, as well as the state hluttaw seat of Kawkareik-2 and the races for the Mon and Pa-O ethnic affairs ministers, for which no Karen parties competed. The KPP, KNP and PSDP, meanwhile, contested separate constituencies with Karen communities in Ayeyarwady, Bago, Tanintharyi and Yangon regions, as well as Mon State. (Read Frontier’s pre-election feature on Karen parties for more detail.)

Given Myanmar’s first-past-the-post electoral system and the dispersed nature of Karen communities outside Kayin, only the parties within Kayin were expected to win seats. However, of all the Karen parties, only the KPP had any success, winning the state hluttaw seat of Thandaunggyi-1. 

KNDP candidates came second in just over half of the constituencies the party contested, suggesting some potential for future elections, although they generally lagged behind their NLD competitors by between 15 and 45 percent of the vote. The only two close races were for the state hluttaw seat of Hlaingbwe-2, where Aung Pyi Soe lost to the NLD’s Saw Chit Khin by 2.5pc of the vote, and the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Kayin-9 (also corresponding to Hlaingbwe Township), where the KNDP’s Saw Myint Han lost to the NLD’s Nan Moe Moe Htwe by only 0.01pc. 

Meanwhile, the Union Solidarity and Development Party kept all seats in Hpapun Township – one in the Pyithu Hluttaw, one in the Amyotha Hluttw and two in the state hluttaw. The military-aligned party’s stronghold in the township is helped by the fact that, both in the election this year and in 2015, voting was cancelled in most of Hpapun’s rural hinterland, meaning polling stations were largely confined to the township’s administrative hub, a Tatmadaw garrison town.

The one other party to win a seat in Kayin was the Mon Unity Party, which took the Mon ethnic affairs minister position in the state government.

In the Kayin State Hluttaw, these opposition parties will be overwhelmed by the NLD, which will have 13 of the 17 elected seats in the state assembly, not including the six mandatory Tatmadaw representatives.

Kayin is not an outlier in this regard. Overall, the NLD performed much better than expected in the ethnic nationality states, contributing to a nationwide landslide that saw it win more than 80pc of the available seats. The results surprised many observers, who believed the merging of parties representing particular ethnic nationalities, combined with a widespread perception that the Bamar-dominated NLD cares little for ethnic minority interests, would contribute to an improved performance for ethnic-based parties. However, the NLD even increased its share of seats in Chin, Kachin, Shan and Kayin states.

Kayin was, however, an outlier in its poor voter turnout, whose effect on the results is unclear. At 53.5pc, the state’s turnout figure was the worst of any state and region, and was substantially below the national average of 71pc. Nonetheless, this marked an improvement from the 46pc turnout in 2015, which was also the nation’s lowest that year.

A search for answers

Saw Phoe Kwar, who volunteered at the Pharpya village polling station in Kyainseikgyi Township, said the poor results for Karen parties surprised him. “Before the election, I thought the Karen parties would win by a landslide, but as the votes were counted, I realised they could not even get close to the NLD,” he said.

Pharpya is in one of 41 village tracts in Kayin where voting was allowed for the first time on November 8. In 2015, the Union Election Commission cancelled voting in 94 of Kayin’s 135 village tracts on the grounds of insecurity – though no constituencies were cancelled outright, and a full set of MPs were elected – but this year only 53 village tracts were cancelled. Most of the newly enfranchised areas are, like Pharpya, in areas controlled by Karen National Union’s Brigade 6, and Frontier reported on election day that the Karen armed group organised transport for villagers who lived far from polling stations. This, combined with the KNU’s explicit endorsement of Karen parties and anecdotal reports that these villagers were casting ballots enthusiastically for the KNDP, raised expectations of success for the party, but it failed to turn its fortunes around.

Phoe Kwar believed the NLD’s position as the party of government had been decisive, allowing it to build support with recent local infrastructure projects. “I think the NLD was strong because Karen people in remote areas cannot read or write well, and were grateful [for development],” he said. 

The Karen National Union organised transport on election day for voters living far from the polling station in Pharpya village, Kyainseikgyi Township. (Pho Darr Bo | Frontier)

KNDP chair Aung Pyi Soe said the NLD’s electoral success in Kayin State was also helped by the ruling party’s allegedly close relationship with the UEC.

The Myanmar president, who is from the NLD, wholly appoints the commission, which in turn appoints the members of local election sub-commissions. This brings the independence of electoral authorities at all levels into question.

Aung Pyi Soe said that many of the township and ward or tract sub-commission members were NLD supporters. He alleged that they nudged elderly voters who lacked much electoral knowledge into casting ballots for the NLD during the advance voting process, and as a result, a disproportionately high number of these advance ballots went to the NLD, relative to how many votes the party received on election day.

The opportunity to vote in advance was extended to voters aged 60 and over nationwide in the week before the election, in order to protect this vulnerable segment of society from catching COVID-19 at crowded polling stations on election day.

Aung Pyi Soe also said his party had filed a complaint with electoral authorities claiming that the number of votes exceeded the number of registered voters in five village tracts in Kyainseikgyi Township and three in Hlaingbwe. However, he did not provide further detail to support this or the allegation related to advance voting, and it was unclear whether the complaint would be submitted to a UEC-appointed tribunal. These tribunals can overturn the results of any individual electoral contest but entail a lengthy and expensive process.

Aung Pyi Soe added that the NLD also benefitted from knowing when the campaign period would begin, thanks again to the party’s alleged closeness to the UEC, allowing it to plan activities in advance.

With Myanmar’s “second wave” of COVID-19 infections beginning in late August, there was great uncertainty over whether the election would go ahead according to the usual timeline, which includes a 60-day campaign period, and over what forms of campaigning would be allowed. In the event, the start of campaigning on September 8 was informally announced by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi before the UEC officially set the date, and with only days to spare, further bringing the UEC’s independence into question. Campaign events of up to 50 people were allowed, but with mandatory social distancing.

How parties performed by vote share in Kayin State on November 8. (Created by Thibi)

Aung Pyi Soe also accused the NLD of using government support to poor households hurt financially by the COVID-19 pandemic to build electoral support for the party. 

Since April, the government has undertaken sporadic food handouts and cash transfers, and the frequent involvement of NLD lawmakers and party members has angered opposition parties, some of which see it as a form of vote buying. Aung Pyi Soe said even if the intentions behind the support were entirely good, it still put parties such as his at a disadvantage, because they lacked the resources to materially assist voters. 

Despite these handicaps and some alleged foul play, Aung Pyi Soe said he was still surprised by the KNDP’s poor performance, particularly after the KNU – the most prominent Karen armed group, which signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the government in 2015 – had urged Karen people to vote for Karen parties on the fifth anniversary of the NCA on October 15, less than a month before the election. 

“I’m not sure whether it’s because the Karen lack national spirit, or trust the NLD more than the Karen,” he said. 

Aung Pyi Soe believes the solution is a greater commitment to Karen unity. “We will try to transform our weak parties into one strong party,” he said. “We are currently discussing this, and aim to form a single Karen political party.” 

However, Saw Christopher, who won the Thandaunggyi state hluttaw seat for the KPP, believes that voters were not chiefly motivated by ethnic identity. People were not all that concerned with whether or not a party represented the Karen people, he said, but wanted one that could support their basic needs.

“Most people are more interested in the [material] support they receive, rather than whether it is a Karen party or the NLD,” he said.

Aung Pyi Soe seemed to partially concede Saw Christopher’s point when he said that the KNDP had been damaged by accusations that it only spoke about Karen ethno-nationalism. He added that, because the party represented ethnic minority interests, some voters had dismissed the KNDP as being unable to win an election and form a government.

COVID-19 protection measures are undertaken at a polling station in Kaw Nawt village in Kawkareik Township on election day. (Sa Yarzar Aung | Frontier)

The Mon Unity Party bucks the trend

The electoral outcome was notably different in neighbouring Mon State. There, the main ethnic party, the Mon Unity Party, won 11 of the 45 seats available – six in the state hluttaw, three in the Amyotha Hluttaw and two in the Pyithu Hluttaw. These wins, along with the MUP’s victory in the race for the Mon ethnic affairs minister position in Kayin, add up to a haul of seats that is three times greater than the four won by ethnic Mon parties in 2015. All other seats in Mon were won by the NLD, which will hold a reduced majority of 17 seats (down from 19) in the 23-member state hluttaw, including the military MPs.

An analysis published by Frontier shortly after the election attributed the MUP’s impressive electoral debut to the support of a relatively homogenous ethnic group, community-wide mobilisation and clear messaging.

But although the results put the MUP among Myanmar’s most successful ethnic parties, the outcome was still disappointing for many Mon. This was on account of the huge excitement around the party in the run-up to the vote, which produced a surge of Mon national pride.

Nai Si, a 56-year-old rubber farmer in Mudon Township’s Kaw Pe Htaw village, about 30 kilometres south of Mawlamyine, was among the thousands of Mon paddy farmers and rubber growers who took time off on November 8 to vote for the MUP in the expectation that it would dominate state politics.

“If we vote, there will be more Mon in parliament, and when we have more seats in parliament our rights will be better protected,” he told Frontier the day before the election.

Nai Bu, a 65-year-old rubber plantation owner in Kyaikmayaw Township, called Mon who voted for the NLD “traitors” to their ethnic group.

He predicted the MUP would eventually become as strong as the Arakan National Party in Rakhine State, which holds a majority of elected seats in the state hluttaw and is the third largest party in the outgoing Union parliament.

“The stronger we are, the harder it will be for the NLD to gain support in our state, Nai Bu said. “Those who join the NLD can expect to lose face in the future.” 

The MUP was formed in 2019 by members of the Mon National Party and the All Mon Region Democracy Party to avoid splitting the Mon vote. The party contested every constituency in the state, and performed better in the south – particularly in Ye Township, where five candidates were elected, and Mudon, where the MUP won three seats. The party, however, struggled further north in the state, including in the state capital Mawlamyine. 

Both Ye and Mudon have a relatively strong presence of Mon people, while other parts of the coastal state tend to have more mixed populations. For example, in Thanbyuzayat, many people come from different parts of the country to work on fishing boats or in rubber plantations, and as a result are more likely to vote for the NLD.

Nai Mann, a senior journalist from Mon News Agency, said that many ethnic Mon do not know how to vote, while many are also based overseas, including in Thailand and Malaysia. Most of these migrants chose not to return to cast their ballots due to the difficulty of travel and a fear of losing their jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While they were eligible to vote in advance at Myanmar embassies and consulates, only a small fraction of the overseas migrant workforce registered to do so, despite a marked increase from 2015. Their absence from the election is indicated by the relatively low voter turnout in Mon, which at 57pc was the second lowest after Kayin.

Dr Aung Naing Oo, the deputy speaker of the state hluttaw who was re-elected to the seat of Chaungzon-1, said there were four factors that had prevented the MUP from performing even better in the poll: that the party was only formed last year, and had little time to prepare; was hindered in its campaigning activities by the health crisis; the high number of people from other ethnic groups living in Mon State; and a lack of financial resources. 

The Mon Unity Party campaign in Mon State’s Mudon Township on October 18. (Lawi Weng | Frontier)

Nai Minn Latt (aka U Htun Myint Kyaw), who lost to the NLD in the race for the Mon State Hluttaw seat of Thanbyuzayat-1, told Frontier the health crisis had made it difficult to spread the party’s message. “COVID-19 appeared soon after our party was formed, because of that, the party didn’t hold public meetings as openly as expected,” he said.

However, he thought the party’s gains provided a good foundation on which to build for future elections. “We may not be able to do as well as we thought we would, but the situation is not so bad,” he said. “We can do a lot with those who won the election.” 

In contrast to most other ethnic parties, the MUP is overall satisfied with its performance, and those elected said they were determined to work for the people who had voted for them. They include Min Aung Htoo, who won in the state hluttaw seat of Ye-2. 

“It was wonderful to see how much support we received, and it also made us feel we have a big duty to serve them,” he said.

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