Tale of Five Elections

Pyawbwe

A motorcycle taxi driver in central Pyawbwe clad in the merchandise of the National League for Democracy, which is campaigning hard to unseat the Union Solidarity and Development Party in the township. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

In Pyawbwe, the fight for the rural vote threatens to get ugly

Heated campaign rallies have sparked tensions in Pyawbwe Township in southern Mandalay Region, a key battleground between the ruling National League for Democracy and opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party.

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 Pyawbwe.

By SWE LEI MON | FRONTIER

The sleepy villages of Pyawbwe Township, in southern Mandalay Region, were startled from their usual quiet on September 8 when campaigning for the November election officially began. Political parties started hitting the road, visiting the township’s urban wards and villages to meet with voters.

The parties are focusing on villages because they are home to 87 percent of the township’s population, of whom 213,823 are registered to vote next month.

Seven parties are fielding 20 candidates for four constituencies in Pyawbwe – one in the Pyithu Hluttaw and two in the regional hluttaw – and the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Mandalay-10, which encompasses Yamethin Township as well as Pyawbwe. But as in most other Bamar-majority areas, the main contest is between the ruling National League for Democracy and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. A rise in Buddhist nationalism helped the USDP win all seats in Pyawbwe in 2015 but the NLD government’s suppression of nationalist groups, together with the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the ruling party, make the results of the November 8 vote hard to predict.

Map created by Thibi

Unofficial campaigning in villages began before September 8, with parties offering assistance to people struggling under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as campaigning picks up steam, a worrying rise in tension between supporters of the two main parties have some fearing outbreaks of violence similar to those that have occurred in other parts of Myanmar’s central Dry Zone in recent weeks.

U Aye Cho, chair of the NLD in Pyawbwe Township, accused USDP supporters of harassing NLD candidates out canvassing.

“When we enter a village, they dance in front of us and sometimes shout obscenities from a distance,” he told Frontier on October 6. “We are being patient, but if the harassment gets worse we will have to take legal action.”

To avoid potential clashes, political parties are required to give the township election sub-commission advance notice of what villages they plan to visit on which dates. Sub-commission officials are then supposed to ensure that rival groups do not cross paths.

But Ma Thi Thi Mar, a Pyawbwe-based member of the Peace Forum Network, a civil society network that supports the national peace process, said that despite efforts to avoid clashing schedules, party supporters in villages still try to disrupt campaigning by their opponents and attack their supporters.

“Just a few days ago, USDP supporters punched a young man in the head who was working at a tollgate because he supports the NLD,” Thi Thi Mar, herself an NLD supporter, said. “The boy has taken legal action over the incident.”

NLD township chair U Aye Cho says his party is being “patient” with harassment from USDP supporters for the time being, but is gathering evidence for a possible post-election tribunal case. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The USDP denies its supporters are resorting to violence in the villages. Supporters are told to accept differing views as a part of a multi-party democracy, party officials insisted to Frontier.

Still, not everyone listens. USDP regional MP U Myint Soe, who is seeking re-election to the seat of Pyawbwe-2, admitted that some supporters have ignored these instructions. But he claimed that most of these people were in fact responding to the provocations of NLD supporters.

“We have also been harassed. While we were giving speeches, they [NLD supporters] took videos and photos without permission,” he told Frontier, adding,“When I was addressing constituents they turned up the volume on their loudspeakers.”

Despite Myint Soe’s protestations, it is generally legal to take photographs or videos in public places regardless of whether the subject gives permission, with some limited exceptions.

Aye Cho, who lost to Myint Soe in 2015, said the USDP has been harassing NLD in about two out of every 10 villages. The party is gathering evidence for a case it may file with a post-election tribunal, he said. These tribunals are presided over by the Union Election Commission and can annul the result of a disputed race. Myint Soe said if that if the NLD were to try this, it should expect a countersuit from the USDP making similar allegations.

Elsewhere in southern Mandalay Region, tensions between NLD and USDP supporters have already descended into violence, such as on September 20 in the Meiktila Township village of Nyaung Kaing, which sits close to Pyawbwe’s northern border. Rocks were thrown at the home of an NLD affiliate during a brawl in the village, resulting in the arrest of six USDP supporters. USDP members have since alleged that NLD supporters started the fight by interrupting their campaign event.

The clashes have not been confined to Mandalay Region. On October 3, a similar incident occurred in Kanni village, in Magway Region’s Myaing Township. However, both the USDP’s Myint Soe and the NLD’s Aye Cho said disagreements would not boil over into mass brawling in Pyawbwe.

Aye Cho said that, despite provocation from USDP supporters, “We have instructed our supporters to be patient and to control their anger until election day.” He said they would have little trouble staying patient because “it is certain that we will win in November”.

Myint Soe said it was important to put recent difficulties in perspective. “We faced disruptions at only three or four villages out of 150 I’ve visited,” he said.

NLD supporters clog the streets of central Pyawbwe on October 9. (Supplied)

But though the two major parties have largely finished their first sweep of the township’s villages, a second round of campaigning may pose fresh challenges for keeping the peace.

Aye Cho said NLD candidates had visited all 317 villages but would return to them before the election “with a sticker campaign”, during which they will also “educate villagers on how to vote”. Meanwhile, in urban wards of Pyawbwe where “we know they will vote for the NLD”, candidates will mainly give speeches to small crowds, he said.

Despite the NLD’s energetic campaigning, the USDP candidates are confident of victory. Besides the Amyotha Hluttaw candidate, all are incumbent MPs who think their record of dutiful service to their constituencies will speak for itself.

Former Tatmadaw lieutenant-colonel U Thaung Aye, who is seeking re-election to the Pyithu Hluttaw, believes he’s earned voters’ loyalty because of his active role in parliament, raising the concerns of his constituents and submitting development proposals for the township. 

“I am just an MP and I had no power to deliver development to the township, because our party is not the government, but I spoke up and raised questions about my township in the hluttaw as much as possible,” he told Frontier.

Myint Soe claimed a similar record but added that because the regional government is controlled by the NLD, even when it has acted on some of his development requests it has tended to coordinate projects through the NLD’s township office rather than work with USDP lawmakers.

“The regional government acted on about half of the proposals I made in the hluttaw,” he said – mostly health centres and upgrades to country roads.

A billboard in central Pyawbwe advertises the local USDP candidates. (Supplied)

The NLD candidates seem equally confident of their chances, predicting their party will take all four seats from the USDP, and its supporters seem to share this confidence. Peace activist Thi Thi Mar said that after five years of NLD rule at the national and regional level, local voters had seen more development – including internet and electricity coming to their homes – than in the previous years of USDP rule.

Thi Thi Mar said rural voters who supported the USDP in previous elections have also come to understand they had been the targets of propaganda.

“In the past, almost all villagers were brainwashed by Buddhist nationalism, but now most of them know the difference between right and wrong,” she said. “That nationalist sentiment has not completely disappeared – but much has changed.”

Children play on a dusty lane in Kaw Taw Wa village, Pyawbwe Township, on August 26. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)
Children play on a dusty lane in Kaw Taw Wa village, Pyawbwe Township, on August 26. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The lion and the peacock gird for battle in Pyawbwe

The election in the southern Mandalay Region township is a fierce contest between the ruling NLD and military-backed USDP, but local enthusiasm for the vote is muted – and a lack of voter education isn’t helping.

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 Pyawbwe, as well as Bawlakhe in Kayah State, Myitkyina in Kachin State, Mrauk-U in Rakhine State and Mayangone in Yangon Region.

By SWE LEI MON | FRONTIER

“Our failure in the 2015 election was good for Pyawbwe,” said U Aye Cho, chair of the National League for Democracy in Pyawbwe Township, a stronghold of the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party in southern Mandalay Region.

USDP candidates won all four seats in Pyawbwe in the last election, a result that Aye Cho said had benefitted the township, indirectly.

“Our NLD government really took care of Pyawbwe,” Aye Cho, 67, told Frontier. “It did not want anyone to think it had left the township behind because it had no [NLD] representatives in parliament, so the government did as much as it could for the development of the township.”

Map created by Thibi

Pyawbwe is a busy transport hub, linked by road to Magway, Meiktila, Kalaw and Nay Pyi Taw, which is about 100 kilometres to the south. The town’s main thoroughfare rattles with the noise of big trucks that travel the old Yangon-Mandalay highway, which bisects Pyawbwe. However, the township is mostly countryside, with an austere, arid landscape of palm trees and powdery earth that is typical of Myanmar’s central Dry Zone.

The Pyawbwe election sub-commission says that 87 percent of the township’s voters live in rural villages, where they mostly make a living farming onion, chillies, beans – and more recently watermelons, with the aid of Chinese investors who lease land from villagers. However, one of the main drivers of the local economy is the transnational trade in human hair. In the town and in the villages, a visitor can see women sorting through bags of hair, much of which is shipped from India, and is being processed for export to China.

Frontier’s visit to Pyawbwe in late August revealed few signs of an impending election besides a few vehicles decorated with party flags and the images of party leaders. However, candidates had already begun touring villages to introduce themselves to voters, anticipating a race in which – contrary to most other parts of Mandalay Region and the Dry Zone – another sweeping NLD victory is not considered a foregone conclusion.

A chili vendor is seen at a produce market in Pyawbwe Township on August 28. Chili, onion and beans are staple crops in the region. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Aye Cho was among the defeated NLD candidates in 2015, losing to the USDP’s U Myint Soe in the race for the state hluttaw seat of Pyawbwe-2 by more than 10,000 votes.

The four incumbent USDP lawmakers got between 55pc and 58pc of the vote in 2015, and all but the Amoytha Hluttaw MP, U Khin Aung Myint, are seeking re-election on November 8. Among those who’ll be fighting to keep their seats is Pyithu Hluttaw lawmaker U Thaung Aye. The former Tatmadaw lieutenant-general is known for his forceful arguments against amending the military-drafted constitution, as well as for his local largesse.

NLD candidates attracted about 40pc of the vote in 2015, trailed by the National Unity Party, the only other party in the race in Pyawbwe, which could only manage about 4pc.

How votes were split between parties in the 2015 election. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

Myint Soe says he is confident of success in the six-candidate race for Pyawbwe-2 because his first priority is the people, not the party.

“Being a lawmaker is a self-sacrificing job; it is not about taking, because we are always giving,” said the USDP incumbent, who owns the Thiha Tiger drinking water and soft drinks company and a construction firm, both of which are based in Pyawbwe. “We [regional MPs] receive [a salary of] K500,000 a month but I spend between K1.2 million and K1.5 million a month travelling around my constituency and making donations. I can do it because I have my own businesses.”

A total of seven parties and 20 candidates are competing in Pyawbwe, said the township’s election sub-commission. The candidates include four people vying for the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Mandalay-10, which encompasses Pyawbwe and adjoining Yamethin Township.

U Myint Soe, the incumbent USDP candidate for Pyawbwe-2, speaks to Frontier on August 26. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The chair of the township election sub-commission, U Soe Myint, said the people in Pyawbwe were not interested in the election because they were struggling to support themselves. There are 214,243 eligible voters in Pyawbwe, but only 20.33pc had checked preliminary voter lists after they went on display, he told Frontier.

“People don’t have a deep interest in the election; all they know is that they have to go to the polling stations because an election is being held,” Soe Myint said.

Ma Thet Thet Soe, an activist and one of five Pyawbwe-based members of Peace Forum Network, a nationwide initiative established under Myanmar’s peace process, said Pyawbwe voters are less interested in the election than in 2015. This is partly because the heavily rural population of the township is preoccupied with debts that have spiralled with the COVID-19 economic downtown.

“In our township, most grassroots people are trapped by loans from microfinance companies and are focused on repaying their loans on time,” she told Frontier.

Thet Thet Soe said at least six microfinance companies were lending money to villagers in Pyawbwe and most borrowers had taken loans from more than one company.

Ma Thet Thet Soe, an activist and member of the nationwide Peace Forum Network, speaks to Frontier on August 27. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

This lack of interest could be countered by a comprehensive voter education campaign, but there were few signs of one during Frontier’s visit to the township.

Soe Myint, who has served as the election sub-commission’s chair in Pyawbwe since 2010, admitted that he had not arranged enough voter education this year but said this was because he had not been instructed to by his seniors in the Union Election Commission.

“Voter education was strong in 2010 and included demonstrations on how to vote,” he said, reminiscing in an unusually fond way about an election that was widely considered rigged in favour of the USDP. “But voter education like that involves costs and cannot be done for free, and so far we have not been instructed by the UEC to provide it.

Soe Myint also complained about not having enough staff to properly compile voter lists by the required time and said he was being assisted by volunteers from other government departments. The protocol of the township election sub-commission stipulate that Pyawbwe should have five staff but two positions were vacant, he said.

However, young, politically-aware township residents have accused the sub-commission of preventing them from carrying out voter education programmes.

Ko Pyae Phyo Thu, a member of Pyawbwe Youth Network, said the sub-commission had rejected the group’s request to conduct voter education in the villages on the grounds that it was not a registered organisation.

The 27-year-old said the group’s lack of registration was not for want of trying: “When we tried to register our group, the [township] administration office said it was unnecessary.”

When the youth network tried to plead its case further with the sub-commission, it “said we needed to apply to the UEC [in Nay Pyi Taw] step by step if we want to get involved in the election,” Pyae Phyo Thu recalled. “We don’t have enough time to do that.”

How voters turned out in 2015. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

Pyae Phyo Thu said mistrust was at the root of the problem. “They [election officials] are worried that we will campaign on behalf of parties, but we do not represent any party,” he said, adding that the youth network had found a way to provide under-the-radar voter education to young villagers, especially first-time voters, with the “understanding” of village tract administrators.

The NLD’s Aye Cho, however, said that he was not disheartened by the apparent lack of interest in the election from voters, insisting that shyness about discussing politics should not be mistaken for apathy.

“The people in our town are always like that,” he said. Although they are “quiet” about their political preferences, “they vote with their heart”.

Swe Lei Mon

Swe Lei Mon

Swe Lei Mon is a reporter at Frontier. She began her journalism career at News Watch weekly journal in 2016, and has worked at Myanmar Business Today and the Myanmar Times.
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