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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.