Tale of Five Elections

Mayangone

A Mayangone trishaw driver waits for customers while clad in People's Pioneer Party gear. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

NLD challenger faces an uphill battle in Mayangone

Voters in the affluent Yangon township remain enthusiastic about the ruling party, but the insurgent People’s Pioneer Party is pouring resources into the election 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 Mayangone, as well as Bawlakhe in Kayah State, Myitkyina in Kachin State, Mrauk-U in Rakhine State and Pyawbwe in Mandalay Region.

By YE MON | FRONTIER

Had Ma Nwe Nwe been 18 in the last general election in 2015, she’d have voted for the National League for Democracy. The 22-year-old resident of Yangon’s Mayangone Township is excited to make up for it in November. 

Her party preference seems to be shared by most voters in Mayangone, at the northern end of the city, just below the airport. The NLD won every seat it contested in the township in 2015 with at least 70 percent of the vote. Although nearly every resident Frontier spoke to in mid-August said they were unhappy with their current elected officials, they also said they were eager to vote them back in because they want NLD leader and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to continue leading the country.

Map created by Thibi

This divided attitude among voters towards the ruling party – enthusiastic support for the top leadership and the party overall, alongside disappointment or disinterest in the party MPs they had directly elected to serve them – is common across Myanmar, where local issues seldom make it into election campaigns. 

Despite her enthusiasm for the ruling party, Nwe Nwe told Frontier she doesn’t know who her Pyithu Hluttaw representative is. 

It’s Dr May Win Myint, a former democracy activist and current NLD central executive committee member. She was first elected to the seat in a 2012 by-election and was re-elected in 2015. But while other Mayangone residents had heard of May Win Myint, most said she and other elected officials feel distant. 

There are poor and working class communities scattered throughout, but Mayangone is largely known for its wealth. The township includes two golf courses and the palatial homes of several retired senior military officials. Many of the rural-born migrants that have crowded into Yangon’s densely-packed Hlaing Tharyar Township to the west work on construction sites here.

Ko Moe Zaw Aung, a 48-year-old resident and active volunteer with local civic and religious groups, was born and raised in the township’s third ward. He’s disappointed with what he described as detached politicians. He said his current regional MP, U Yan Shin (Mayangone-1), failed to meet with constituents in at least three meetings he’d tried to organise.

He said Yan Shin, when he comes to his ward, only meets with government administrators and NLD party members.

Mayangone-born volunteer Ko Moe Zaw Aung wishes MPs were more attentive to their constituents but still plans to vote NLD in November. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Yan Shin denies these claims. He told Frontier on August 26 that he regularly meets with residents.

The issue will ultimately be adjudicated by Mayangone’s voters, who will decide on candidates from the NLD, the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party and two newly formed parties, the People’s Pioneer Party and the Union Betterment Party. 

When Frontier visited in mid August, ahead of the official campaign period that began on September 8, the PPP seemed to be in full-on campaign mode. Party volunteers were passing out branded umbrellas and face masks and helping trishaw drivers affix party flags to their rigs. They were also distributing four pyi (about 8.5 kilogrammes) and one viss (1.6kg) of cooking oil to households. 

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

The NLD’s biggest challenge here will likely come from PPP chairperson Daw Thet Thet Khine, who is contesting the Pyithu Hluttaw seat. The former NLD member and current MP for Dagon Township was suspended from the party in 2018 for criticising it in the media. She co-founded the PPP in 2019. 

Thet Thet Khine says she took part in the 1988 uprising against military rule, but before entering formal politics as an NLD candidate in 2015, she established herself as one of Myanmar’s most successful businesswomen. She still owns several large gem and jewellery companies, several of which are located in Mayangone – though she told Frontier that had nothing to do with her decision to run for the seat. 

No other parties seem to have made significant investments of time or money in Mayangone yet. On August 23, the PPP ran an eye care programme in the township’s third ward, giving out free prescription glasses to those who needed them.

All of these gifts, paid for with party funds, are just the PPP introducing itself to voters, Thet Thet Khine told Frontier on August 26.  

Thet Thet Khine, chairperson for the People's Pioneer Party, speaks with Frontier on August 26. (Thuya Zaw)
People’s Pioneer Party chair Daw Thet Thet Khine speaks with Frontier on August 26 about how she plans to defy the odds in Mayangone. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

“The NLD is a party made of one personality,” she said, in a clear reference to Aung San Suu Kyi. “We [in the PPP] are all scholar-practitioners,” she said, using the English phrase, before adding that she would beat the rival NLD candidate thanks to her superior education.

This hasn’t been enough to convince Moe Zaw Aung. Despite being disappointed with his current representatives, he said he’s still voting NLD because he wants to see Aung San Suu Kyi continue to lead the country. 

“Even though they’re trying to pay for votes with promotional items, the people won’t vote for their candidates,” he said, referring to the PPP. “People will decide on their own who they want to vote for.”

To win over U Kyi Wai Lin, the 44-year-old owner of an auto rental company, the PPP will need to emphasise its competence as practitioners more than scholars. His street floods every rainy season, and no one has done anything about it in the last five years, he said. 

“I want MPs who focus on the problem of flooding – in our ward and in the whole township,” he said.

Business owner U Kyi Wai Lin wants an MP who can help stop the flooding that blights his neighbourhood every rainy season. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Despite the general disappointment or indifference shown by residents towards the township’s elected representatives, regional MP Daw Moe Moe Suu Kyi (Mayangone-2) won fans by opposing the “Mayangone Villa” mixed-used development project. 

The Yangon Region government had proposed the US$93 million commercial project, planned for an eight-acre plot near the 8 Mile junction, as part of the 2018-21 Urban Development Master Plan that it put to the regional parliament in May 2018. Local residents were concerned that its construction would involve filling in three lakes used for rainwater retention, which could exacerbate the annual flooding described by Kyi Wai Lin.

Construction has not begun on the villa project, but it hasn’t been cancelled, according to regional MP Yan Shin.

However, it’s far from certain whether this controversial development – or any other pressing local issue – will feature much in candidate campaigns that promise to veer between handouts and personality politics.

Thet Thet Khine said she doesn’t know much about the Mayangone Villa project and doesn’t intend to learn about it before the November poll.

“My main focus right now is winning the election,” she said, leaving it unclear what, if any, local issues she will take up in her campaign. Nationally, her party is campaigning on a pledge to increase people’s annual income by 20 percent.

But with most residents still professing loyalty to the party that ousted her, Thet Thet Khine appears to have an uphill battle ahead.

How voters turned out in 2015. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)
Mayangone Township residents keep their distance while lined up for donations of rice, fish and oil from political party campaigners on October 7. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Unable to campaign, parties pivot to COVID-19 charity in Yangon’s Mayangone Township

Pandemic restrictions have moved campaigns mostly online, but that hasn’t stopped parties from doling out “charity” to the residents of a north Yangon suburb where the NLD remains king.

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 Mayangone.

By KAUNG HSET NAING | FRONTIER

Jewellery magnate Daw Thet Thet Khine’s People’s Pioneer Party made its presence known in Yangon’s northern suburban Mayangone Township early this election season, passing out rice and cooking oil to the needy even before campaigning officially began on September 8. The party was formed just last year, and the early effort has helped raise its local profile – visibility being the biggest challenge for smaller and newer parties hobbled by COVID-19 restrictions. 

Thet Thet Khine is the PPP Pyithu Hluttaw candidate for the relatively affluent enclave just south of Yangon International Airport. She insists the party’s early efforts were not a form of campaigning, which would make it illegal. They were just her and her party “helping the needy”, she told Frontier. Perhaps, but she and her colleagues sported all-blue party uniforms while conducting this charitable giving. 

During the last week of September the PPP sold rice at reduced prices to residents of the cramped, low-income pockets of the township that are interspersed between the golf courses and gated mansions. Other parties distributed masks and boxes of prepared food.

People’s Pioneer Party chair Daw Thet Thet Khine, second from right, speaks with an elderly voter in Yangon’s Mayangone Township while handing out food donations. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Pandemic restrictions have inhibited campaigns across the country, but perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in Yangon, where city-wide stay-at-home orders have been in place since September 21. But residents in Mayangone, where clusters were reported even earlier, have been under stay-at-home orders since September 9.

“It is so different from 2015,” said Daw Than Than Maw, a resident of Mayangone’s third ward and a National League for Democracy member. “At this point [in the 2015 campaign] we were going around town making speeches. This year we cannot.”

In Mayangone, a total of 23 candidates from seven parties are competing in the township for four seats – one in the Pyithu Hluttaw and two in the Yangon Region government, as well as the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Yangon-11, which includes several other townships. However, the only one with even the slightest chance of unseating the NLD is the PPP. And while the PPP has significantly raised its profile in the township, NLD chair Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still retains mammoth support. The NLD swept the township in the previous general election in 2015, with candidate Dr May Win Myint winning 78 percent of the vote in the lower house contest. May Win Myint was the incumbent in that race, having won it for the NLD in the 2012 by-elections.

This means all four NLD candidates running this year have the advantage of incumbency, on top of the appeal of their party leader. It has also allowed them to lead COVID-19 prevention measures and hand out relief under the badge of the NLD government early on in the pandemic, and as the election approaches. May Win Myint, who is running to keep her Pyithu Hluttaw seat, has been campaigning on her performance as an MP fighting the pandemic specifically.

Starting in early October, May Win Myint alongside Daw Moe Moe Su Kyi and U Yan Shin, who are the NLD candidates for the Mayangone-2 and Mayangone-1 regional assembly seats respectively, have been passing out NLD-branded umbrellas to trishaw drivers in the township.

Yan Shin told Frontier on October 14 he’s also been distributing rice and food to people stuck at home because of stay-at-home orders, and to quarantine centres that have been established in the township.

Asked what platforms and policies they will pursue if elected, several NLD candidates said, somewhat counter-intuitively, that the party forbids them from making campaign pledges before the election. Both Yan Shin and May Win Myint said they would not comment until after the election on November 8, but referred people to their party’s manifesto and official statements made on Facebook.

Mayangone residents don face masks and clutch food goods donated by the People’s Pioneer Party. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

The military-backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party has also been passing out masks and party literature. Daw Khin Aye, 50, a fourth ward resident, said the party also distributed hand soap in her ward during the second week of October. But, she said, USDP handouts pale in comparison to those of the NLD and PPP.

Oddly, every party and candidate Frontier spoke to was insistent that these handouts were not part of their campaigns but were instead just charitable giving, despite their sporting party apparel while doing it. Not all voters are convinced.

“If it isn’t campaigning, why are they wearing party shirts and waving party flags,” asked Ko Kan Thar Thar Hein, 29, a resident of the third ward. “They mix philanthropy with campaigning, like when offering rice donations.”

Despite his scepticism, he still welcomes the donations. “It’s helpful for people struggling financially through the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Even online the NLD and PPP seem to be the most active parties in Mayangone, which the USDP seems to have written off as a lost cause. Thet Thet Khine, the party’s primary challenger in the township, is herself a former NLD member, kicked out of the party in 2018 for publicly criticising it.

She and the four NLD candidates have been aggressively posting pictures of themselves passing out donations to locked-down residents and quarantine centres on Facebook. The PPP also held a Zoom meeting with residents on October 14 and broadcast it live on Facebook. Thet Thet Khine told Frontier she will host another online meeting with residents before election day.

In her broadcast, Thet Thet Khine urged voters to reflect on what their elected leaders had done for them in the past five years, and if they’re unhappy, to vote them out. But in reality, there seems to be little to distinguish the policy goals of the two parties. The PPP in their online meeting pledged to push for “democracy” and “federal policy”, while May Win Myint, who is favoured to keep her Pyithu Hluttaw seat, said the party pledges to work toward a “true democratic federal union”, and for “peace” and “security” for the country.

PPP chair and Pyithu Hluttaw candidate for Mayangone Township Daw Thet Thet Khine speaks to Frontier on August 26. (Thuya Zaw | Frontier)

Meanwhile, election sub commissions at every level are struggling to safely arrange polling amid the pandemic. Mayangone’s Basic Education High School No. 1, which usually houses six polling stations, has been turned into a quarantine centre. The stations will instead be in the nearby Paw Taw Mu Pagoda.

Of the township’s 121 designated polling stations, 18 are being moved to alternative locations according to the Western District election sub commission. Half of them are now serving as quarantine centres. The other half were previously located on the second floors of their buildings and are being moved to first-floor locations to comply with new regulations to accommodate voters with disabilities.

Election workers are also scrambling to finalise lists of voters aged over 60, who will be able to cast advance votes from home.

The election commission had announced on October 10 that some voters over 60 – who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus – will be allowed to vote in advance between October 25 and November 5. The measure is limited to 29 townships in Yangon and five in Mandalay that are under stay-at-home orders and have a population density of at least 5,000 people per square kilometre.

“We don’t even have enough staff to type up these voter lists, so we’ve had to hire a typist with our own money,” said U Kyaw Kyaw Win, chairman of the Mayangone Township election sub commission.

To comply with anti-crowding measures devised by the Ministry of Health and Sports, voters assigned to polling stations in densely-populated wards will be split into two groups, who will be asked to vote in shifts. Polling stations will also require temperature checks, hand washing at basins set up by the local sub-commission, and face masks, which poll workers will distribute.

As of October 25, Mayangone had 1,460 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the health ministry.

“We cannot lose a single life. We’re doing this in accordance with health ministry rules and guidelines,” Kyaw Kyaw Win said. “I think we will be okay.”

A man cycles past campaign signboards in Mayangone Township. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Voters told Frontier they are worried about the pandemic but not enough to keep them from voting. Ma Aye Aye San, a 40-year-old who lives on Shwe Nyaung Bin Street in ward three, said an elderly man and a child died from COVID-19 in a house five minutes walking distance from her own in mid-October. Still, she’s adamant about voting.

“We can become infected in many other ways” she said, suggesting that voting would not pose an especially grave risk so long as health guidelines are followed.

She will proudly cast her vote for the NLD, as she did five years ago.

“If we don’t vote in this election, I’m afraid we’ll go back to military rule,” she said.

Ye Mon

Ye Mon

Ye Mon started as a reporter at Pyithu Khit news journal in 2011. Prior to joining Frontier, he worked as a reporter at the Myanmar Times and on the DVB English team.
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