Ethnic parties down but not out

Ethnic parties appear to have suffered major setbacks in the election, losing many of the 65 seats they held in the outgoing Union parliament.

The once mighty Shan Nationalities Democratic Party retained only one seat, bled dry by the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and the contest between them will mean a much smaller overall Shan representation in parliament.

Likewise, the All Mon Region Democracy party, which won 16 national and local seats in the 1990 election, won only one of the 35 constituencies it contested.

The NLD refused to form alliances with many of the ethnic parties, instead fielding as many of its own candidates throughout the country as it could, and it paid off. Small parties clinging to a few seats in Chin, Kayin and Kachin watched the NLD juggernaut pick off their seats one by one.

Yet many ethnic parties may have had themselves to blame. U Naing Ngwe thein, chairman of the All Mon Region Democracy Party, said many Mon living abroad or in conflict zones went unrepresented.

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“Another strong reason for our loss is there are three Mon parties. So the voters were confused and a lot of ballots were scattered,” he said.

Tom Kramer, a researcher for the Transnational Institute, argued that this kind of vote splitting was the most common blight for the ethnic camp as parties that had boycotted the 2010 election squabbled with their own offshoots. The NLD simply took advantage of the disarray.

“They were campaigning against themselves,” Mr Kramer said. “They have not been able to make alliances. They were running in the same areas for the same seats.”

The most successful ethnic party was the Rakhine National Party, created last year from a merger between former rivals, the Arakan League for Democracy and its 1990 offshoot, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

Still, the upsets at Union parliament level do not mean ethnic parties will be relegated to the margins. Early results indicate that they were more successful in state and regional governments.

Mr Kramer said an NLD government would be able to change the narrative for the ethnic parties, which have generally been dissatisfied with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Scholar and analyst Martin Smith said there was likely to be general goodwill for the NLD among ethnic parties.

There was also an “expectation that this will truly be an opportunity for fundamental change from the political stasis and repression of the past,” said Mr Smith, the author of Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity.

Previous governments do not have a stellar political track record with minorities, he said. Some will remember how the post-independence government ignored or marginalised ethnic populations and failed to end sectarian violence. They may also see a phantasmagoria of former Bamar dominance in a sweeping NLD majority.

“This is the sort of scenario veteran ethnic leaders worry about today, and it will be vital that the NLD puts ethnic peace and justice at the centre of national reform and representation,” Mr Smith said.

U Naing Ngwe Thein is sceptical about what the NLD can achieve.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said frequently that her government will make the platform for a federal Union. But I think it is impossible because she can’t do a federal Union by herself,” he said. “If she calls her government a federal Union government, she has to release some power.”

Still, Mr Kramer said working for greater political autonomy for ethnic constituencies – especially the selection of state and regional chief ministers, who are appointed by the executive – would be the most obvious way for a NLD government to form lasting partnerships.

However, for a NLD government to become a rallying point for ethnics, it will need to change its strategy.

“The USDP had a very clear strategy, like it or not,” Mr Kramer said. “The question is, what is the NLD’s vision for a multi-ethnic Myanmar?”

Additional reporting by Kyaw Phone Kyaw.

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