National League for Democracy supporters celebrate in front of the party's head office in Yangon on election night. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
National League for Democracy supporters celebrate in front of the party's head office in Yangon on election night. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Image, strategy and friends with money: How the NLD did it again

Trust in Aung San Suu Kyi, a tight social media strategy and help from business leaders were among the factors behind the National League for Democracy’s landslide election win.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

The 2015 election result was seen as a one-off, the first time in decades many people had been given the chance to vote for the National League for Democracy. And vote they did, delivering the party around 58 percent of the total vote, and almost 80pc of seats, including 390 in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Nay Pyi Taw.

Many pundits thought the unique circumstances five years ago meant such a large win would be difficult to repeat. The NLD government’s challenges on a range of issues, from the peace process and constitutional reform to the economy and human rights, have been well documented. Ethnic parties, too, had consolidated and appeared likely to be much stronger competition.

But on November 8, the NLD didn’t just repeat its 2015 landslide win – it bettered it. The party won 396 of the 476 contested seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which comprises the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw. In the process it secured an absolute majority and, therefore, its choice of president to lead from March 2021.

The election was a disaster for the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won just 33 Union-level seats, down from 41 in 2015. Ethnic minority parties won a total of 47 seats, down from 56 in 2015, although their performance was skewed by the cancellation of voting in 16 Union constituencies in Rakhine State that would likely have been won by Rakhine parties.

What was the recipe for the NLD’s success on November 8? Was it largely down to one factor, or did a range of forces collide to catapult the NLD to victory? Frontier spoke to more than a dozen sources, from NLD insiders to analysts, to find answers.

Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing shows his ink-marked finger after voting at a polling station in Nay Pyi Taw on November 8. (Thet Aung | AFP)

Min Aung Hlaing gets out the vote?

High turnout was seen as important for a strong NLD showing. Its main national rival, the USDP, is considered to have a loyal, albeit shrinking, base that it can rely on to vote – a factor that delivered it victories in several by-elections since 2015.

Predictions that fear of COVID-19 would hamper turnout – or the NLD’s ability to secure another landslide – proved to be unfounded. The Union Election Commission has said turnout was above 70pc, up from 69pc in 2015. Many citizens interviewed by Frontier as they waited patiently in queues at polling stations said a desire to exercise their right to vote outweighed any concern about catching the coronavirus.

What motivated the people to vote in record numbers? Opinions vary, but some observers say comments by the Tatmadaw and some rival parties ahead of the election strengthened the determination of citizens to vote for the NLD, in order to send a message to the military to stay out of politics.

On November 2, Tatmadaw commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing issued a statement that criticised the UEC and the NLD government over the handling of the election. He later suggested in a media interview that he might not accept the result of the election. Coincidentally, the hardline nationalist monk U Wirathu emerged from hiding on November 2, after being on the run since being charged in May last year with sedition, and surrendered to police, in what some saw as a bid to galvanise support for the USDP.

U Khine Win, executive director of the Sandhi Governance Institute, a domestic think tank, said it seemed these moves had backfired, hurting the USDP’s already-slim chances of gaining seats in the election.

U Pyone Cho, who won the Dawbon-1 Yangon Region Hluttaw seat, said he had been surprised by the sight of crowds lining up to vote early on November 8. “I think they decided to vote again for NLD because of what the government has done over the past five years, and their trust in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the party,” said the lawmaker, who has been widely tipped to replace U Phyo Min Thein as Yangon’s chief minister.

Despite having doubts over the turnout, he said he knew the NLD would win since the start of the campaign period in September. “I could see the level of public support once people started flying the party flag from their homes,” he said.

Residents ride bicycles along a dirt road during sunrise in Nay Pyi Taw. (Ye Aung Thu | AFP)

Grassroots development

The NLD made four key pledges in its manifesto for the 2015 election. They were to resolve the peace process, ensure the “emergence” of a democratic constitution, deliver a fair and just system of governance that defended the people’s interests, and improve the people’s material wellbeing by giving them the freedom and security to prosper.

Although the NLD government failed to achieve progress on the peace process and amending the constitution, it did make some important governance reforms, especially in combating corruption and in wresting control of the ubiquitous General Administration Department, backbone of the bureaucracy, from the military-headed Ministry of Home Affairs and putting it under the Ministry of the Union Government Office.

U Ye Htut, an information minister in the USDP government that took office in 2011 and a former lieutenant-colonel in the Tatmadaw, said most people voted for the NLD because they believed it had been moving the country in the right direction.

Ye Htut said the NLD had also gained credibility with voters from development projects and government departments working closely with the people in constituencies where it had not won seats in 2015.

“The NLD has been able to increase its influence in these areas by helping the people to raise their standard of living, and even though the effects might not always be obvious, I think it had an impact on the election result,” Ye Htut told Frontier.

Echoing Ye Htut, Khine Win said that when he visits rural areas people tell him that roads, hospitals, clinics and schools have all improved under the NLD. Khine Win said grassroots people judge a government based on daily experiences rather than issues such as peace and constitutional reform.

Political analysts say there has been an overall improvement in meeting basic needs under the NLD. Better infrastructure, improved access to electricity, and increased support for the elderly and pregnant women, had a profound effect on how people voted.

Daw Khin San Hlaing, a Pyithu Hluttw lawmaker for Pale in Sagaing Region, won her fourth election for the NLD on November 8.

The landslide win came as no surprise, she said. Although the NLD had struggled to achieve some of its political goals, rural voters in particular gave it credit for overseeing unprecedented infrastructure development.

“It’s clear that transport has developed under the NLD. We can go to places we could never reach before, and electricity and water has also arrived in many villages,” Khin San Hlaing said. “NLD lawmakers actively participated in development projects and worked closely with local people. That’s why people voted for us to lead the country for another five years.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s page was created in late July but has already amassed more than 1.4 million followers. (Frontier)

A (social media) plan for victory

NLD officials says the party also owes its victory to a strategic plan for communication that focused on increasing social media use and overhauling party information organs from the national to the grassroots level.

Since 2017, the NLD central information committee has established information committees at the state and regional, district and township levels, and their activities were supported by the creation of 389 Facebook pages.

Experts were brought in to give short training courses on creating text, videos and photos to information committee members responsible for handling the social media pages.

The central information committee also developed social media campaigns based on region-specific strategies developed by a 15-member online victory group under the party’s central victory committee.

The party also advised Facebook’s Myanmar team about its official pages as a precaution against fake accounts and hacking attempts.

“Our aim was to reach out to the people,” said U Kyi Toe, a member of the NLD central information team who led its social media campaign. “The Facebook pages enabled us to publicise the NLD’s work and achievements in a continuous and timely manner.”

Members of the central information committee served as administrators of the party’s Facebook pages to keep tight control of what was posted, and they also asked NLD candidates to open their own social media accounts to communicate with voters.

“We took the role of administrator on all party pages because we can quickly identify posts that are not in line with party policy or the law and take them down in a short time,” Kyi Toe said.

Although the committee did not interfere with candidates’ pages, he said the NLD strictly prohibited all party and candidates’ pages from boosting content on their accounts.

MP-elect Pyone Cho said the social media campaign was vital in areas where in-person campaigning was prohibited, including his seat in Yangon, all of which was subject to stay-at-home orders during the official campaign period.

“The party’s online campaign was a very important part of our election win,” he said.

But the most effective page for reaching voters was “Chair NLD”, which was created for Aung San Suu Kyi in late July and has already amassed more than 1.4 million followers.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to use social media, which had begun earlier in the year as a means for the state counsellor to communicate government policy and reassure citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, “had a huge impact on the campaign”, said NLD central information team member Kyi Toe.

The NLD leader was personally involved in creating content, he said. “During the campaign period, she came to the party office [in Nay Pyi Taw] at about 4pm each day and stayed until 6pm. She was the key driver of the Facebook page – she came up with the ideas.”

“She wrote all the posts herself – I just posted video and photos of party activities,” Kyi Toe said. “She was so tired but she worked really hard.”

Aung San Suu Kyi also developed the concept for “The NLD’s Long Journey”, an online talk show programme that featured her in conversation with senior party leaders about their experiences during the party’s long struggle for democracy.

The “Long Journey” series was seen as so successful that the conversations have since been published as a book.

“The programme was aimed at first-time voters and was an effective way to educate them about the party’s history,” NLD spokesperson Dr Myo Nyunt told Frontier.

Workers prepare a National League for Democracy campaign sign in Yangon on September 8, the first official day of campaigning. (Sai Aung Main | AFP)

On the ground

Although COVID-19 meant there were some restrictions on campaigning, the NLD didn’t neglect its on-the-ground activities.

In June, the party formed victory committees from the state and regional level down to wards and village-tracts to ensure the campaign was effective and coordinated. In areas regarded as challenging, the victory committees included a legal adviser and an accountant in case their services were needed.

Myo Nyunt, the party spokesperson, said that the party appointed members who were trusted by their communities and who understood the local language and culture to serve on the committees. Non-members who wanted to help the NLD during the campaign period were also appointed, a move that generated some controversy.

Salai Isaac Khen, a former Chin State minister for electricity, industry and municipal affairs, headed the state’s 10-member election victory committee. The committee comprised one party representative from each of the state’s nine townships, plus a well-known civil society activist, Dr Sa Sa.

The NLD won 36 of the 39 contested seats in Chin – a big improvement on 2015, when it won 28 seats. Isaac Khen said a three-pronged strategy contributed to the NLD’s success. It featured candidates canvassing in their electorates, township-level campaign committees that targeted voters, and an online information team to publicise candidates’ activities on Facebook. State-level campaign committee members also held Zoom meetings twice a week to address problems that emerged at township level.

Isaac Khen said he encountered some frustration with the government in rural areas, where residents felt like they had been left behind their urban counterparts.

“After years of neglect, the people’s hopes are high. They want everywhere to be developed at the same time. There is some dissatisfaction with the government. I told the truth – that, yes, the government couldn’t do everything in five years, but that we can still see the development in Chin State is tangible and visible … then I asked them to vote again for the NLD so it can finish the things it has not done over the past five years,” Isaac Khen told Frontier.

He said Union government spending in Chin has increased by six times since 2015, adding that Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin, always showed keen interest in the state’s development.

Isaac Khen said another reason for the NLD’s victory was clarity over its leadership.

“It is clear who is leading the NLD, but in some parties it is not clear if the chairperson is actually the leader,” he said. “Another point in the NLD’s favour is the sacrifices it made and the tough experiences it endured, and I think this appeals to the people.”

But, like other interviewees, Isaac Khen emphasised the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the party’s victory.

“The NLD’s success in the election is due to the people’s trust in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the party,” he added.

It is an assessment shared by former USDP minister Ye Htut.

“The main reason [for the NLD landslide] is that the people still believe in Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership,” he said. “But post-election, it is time for the NLD to develop as a political party, rather than being based on one person.”

NLD supporters ride in a convoy through Pyawbwe on October 25. (Supplied)
NLD supporters ride in a convoy through Pyawbwe on October 25. (Supplied)

Friends with money

Along with the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the NLD’s record and election strategy, the party also benefitted from the activities of wealthy, dedicated supporters.

They include a support group called Union State Success National League for Democracy, or USS-NLD, which was founded by U Kyaw Myo Naing, the chair of Awra Trading, which was established in 2005 to distribute LPG throughout Myanmar.

Although Kyaw Myo Naing lives in Yangon, the group is based in Meiktila, a township in southern Mandalay Region that was a USDP stronghold and the site of savage Buddhist-Muslim violence in March 2013.

USS-NLD’s activities during the campaign included using a large truck decorated with NLD logos that played campaign songs while touring wards and villages. The truck, flanked by several cars, also targeted neighbouring townships in southern Mandalay Region – Pyawbwe, Yamethin and Thazi – where the NLD also lost in 2015. They have together been called “the four USDP towns”, but all fell to the NLD on November 8

Kyaw Myo Naing said the group has about 400 members, while thousands more followed its activities on Facebook (the USS-NLD page has more than 99,000 followers).

“Although we are based in Meiktila, after we created our Facebook page and shared our activities, [NLD] members in other townships invited us to campaign there,” Kyaw Myo Naing told Frontier.

Kyaw Myo Naing started supporting the NLD in Meiktila after it lost all seats in the township to the USDP in 2015.

“People were saying that Meiktila is a ‘green’ land, and I wanted to change that,” he said, referring to the colour by which the USDP is known. “We also wanted lawmakers from the party in government; I have noticed that it’s difficult to do development in an area when the MP is not from the ruling party.”

Kyaw Myo Naing began by holding meetings with local people to cultivate support for the NLD. Later, he began using his own money to support development projects in nearly 400 villages in Meiktila Township, where the main needs are access to drinking water, transport and electricity.

“I funded these projects but when I visited the villages, I let the [NLD] village committee know and had them participate in the donation ceremony,” he said. “This way, we worked together.”

When he lists his donations on his Facebook account, he includes the phone numbers of the township party committee so that other communities may contact them if they need similar assistance.

“The religious incident in Meiktila left people living in fear,” Kyaw Myo Naing said, referring to the 2013 riots, “but I tried to use the projects I funded to promote political awareness and explain the difference between right and wrong.”

Asked why he had invested so much money and energy in an NLD victory despite not being a resident of Meiktila, he said his underlying objective was to support the emergence of democracy.

“I was involved in the 1988 uprising as a student and then became involved in business. Lately, though, I’ve resolved to help democracy as much as I can,” he said. “It was very satisfying for me to see the NLD win in Meiktila and the other three townships [held by the USDP] because it shows that the people’s political awareness has increased.”

NLD spokesperson Myo Nyunt said the party had proven to pundits that their predictions the party would go backwards from 2015 were “unfounded”. “We always said we would win enough seats to form government. We thank those who campaigned on our behalf,” he said.

Although proud of their contribution to the party’s victory, NLD officials uniformly said the most decisive factor was the people’s trust in its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

“People love and trust our leader,” said Khin San Hlaing, the Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Pale in Sagaing Region. “That’s the biggest reason for us winning another landslide.”

By Thomas Kean

By Thomas Kean

Thomas Kean has been working in Myanmar as a journalist and editor since 2008. Before joining Frontier in May 2016, he edited the English edition of the Myanmar Times for six years.
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