NLD supporters celebrate the party's electoral landslide in front of the party's Yangon headquarters November. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
NLD supporters celebrate the party's electoral landslide in front of the party's Yangon headquarters on November 8, 2020. (Frontier)

NLD olive branch leaves ethnic parties wary

After its landslide election win, the NLD is seeking the “cooperation” of ethnic parties in establishing a federal democracy, but they have yet to see evidence that their basic demands will be met.


On November 12, the same day the National League for Democracy announced it had won enough seats to form government, the party released an open letter to ethnic parties. The letter promised to meet the aspirations of ethnic people and sought the parties’ “cooperation” in creating a democratic federal union.

After a meeting of its central executive committee in Nay Pyi Taw on December 11, the NLD announced the formation of a three-member team of senior party officials to hold talks with ethnic parties. The NLD had earlier floated the idea of a “national unity government”, but it is unclear what this will mean in terms of appointments, which are the prerogative of the president even at the state and regional level.

“We want to cooperate with all ethnic people and will pay serious attention to their aspirations; that’s why we invited them to work with us,” NLD party spokesperson Dr Myo Nyunt told Frontier. He said the party sent the November 12 letter to 48 ethnic party headquarters around the country.

While ethnic parties have largely welcomed the letter, representatives from several say they have yet to be convinced that the ruling party will change course, having largely shunned inter-party cooperation since the 2015 election.

As of December 14, 14 parties ­– including the Arakan National party, Kachin State People’s Party and Lisu National Development Party – had responded, Myo Nyunt said.

ANP spokesperson Daw Aye Nu Sein told Frontier on December 11, however, that the ANP response was just an acknowledgement of the letter made in the first week of December, and that nothing had progressed beyond that. 

There has so far been no formal response from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy – the most successful ethnic party on November 8 ­– nor the Mon Unity Party, which made significant gains in Mon State, though leaders from both parties have told the media that they welcome the gesture.

SNLD vice chair Sai Nyunt Lwin said the letter required no response. “The letter just says the NLD hopes to work with ethnic parties,” he told Frontier. “It offered no invitation for anything.”

The SNLD, which allied with the NLD during the annulled 1990 election, won the third-highest number of seats on November 8, after the NLD and the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party. The Shan party took 13 seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw, two in the Amyotha Hluttaw, 26 in the Shan State Hluttaw and one in the Kachin State Hluttaw.

The MUP, which won two Pyithu Hluttaw seats, three Amyotha Hluttaw seats, six seats in the Mon State Hluttaw and the Mon ethnic affairs minister position in neighbouring Kayin State, has taken the same view as the SNLD.

“It’s not an invitation or an explanation of anything,” said MP-elect Nai Layae Tama, spokesperson and joint secretary-1of the MUP, who won the Mon State Hluttaw seat for Thanbyuzayat-2. “It’s nothing.”

Pundits have also remarked on the thinness of the NLD’s offer.

“Ethnic parties responded to the NLD’s open letter constructively, but in reality, [ethnic parties] do not expect very much to come from it,” said U Ye Tun, a political analyst and former Pyithu Hluttaw MP for northern Shan State’s Hsipaw Township.

The members of the NLD’s new team for engaging ethnic parties are incumbent Kayin State chief minister Nang Khin Htwe Myint, Magway Region chief minister and NLD third secretary Dr Aung Moe Nyo, and Nhtung Hka Naw Sam, a Kachin politician who chairs the party’s ethnic affairs committee.

Myo Nyunt told Frontier the team would first talk with the parties that had formally responded to the NLD’s letter, before moving on to other ethnic parties. “The NLD is open to any party that wants a discussion,” he said.

Myo Nyunt said the main intention was to reach consensus on the shape of a future federal union, rather than negotiate the composition of the new Union or state and regional governments that will form early next year. However, he said the NLD was open to discussing government formation if ethnic parties requested it. “If ethnic parties propose qualified persons for the Union or state governments, we will think about it and negotiate with them,” he said. “We will not reject [their proposals] at once.”

Residents of southern Shan State’s Mong Hsu Township campaign for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy on April 1, 2017, ahead of by-elections held that year. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Past offers

In forming government after its landslide election victory in 2015, the NLD offered some ministerial and other executive positions to ethnic party leaders.

The NLD and SNLD leaders had discussed nominating an SNLD member as vice president, SNLD vice chair Sai Nyunt Lwin told Frontier. However, negotiations quickly broke down. Nyunt Lwin did not give further detail, but SNLD spokesperson Sai Leik told The Irrawaddy on November 19 that after the NLD changed their offer to Union ethnic affairs minister, the SNLD pulled out of the talks.

The NLD then successfully offered the ethnic affairs minister position to Nai Thet Lwin, vice-chair of the Mon National Party. The NLD also appointed as Mon State’s minister of natural resources and the environment Min Kyi Win, who had won Mudon-2 for the MNP, which was one of two Mon parties that competed in 2015 and merged to form the MUP ahead of this year’s vote.

Both candidates, however, worked with the NLD independently of the party.

“The NLD negotiated directly with those individuals; there were no negotiations between the NLD and the MNP,” Layae Tama said.

Ethnic party leaders felt disrespected at being cut out from these negotiations, and this year all MUP candidates signed a pledge to follow the party’s decisions in accepting or rejecting roles in the new government, he said.   

The Arakan National Party, meanwhile, was denied the right to form the state government in Rakhine despite winning 22 of the 35-elected seats in the 47-member Rakhine State Hluttaw in 2015. Instead, then-President U Htin Kyaw appointed a government headed by a chief minister from the NLD, as is his right under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

ANP member U Kyaw Lwin, who won Ramree-1 in 2015, was appointed state minister of agriculture, livestock, forestry and mines, but was dismissed from the ANP in 2016 for accepting the role against the party’s wishes.

The right to form or at least participate in their own state governments remains a major sticking point for ethnic parties.

“I think the NLD already understands what we want,” said Dr Manam Tu Ja, the KSPP chair who won the Kachin State Hluttaw seat of Injangyang-1 in November. Chief among ethnic party demands is self-determination, starting with the right to form their own state government, he said – although the KSPP’s own claim is weakened by the fact the party won just three of the 40 elected seats in the state hluttaw.

Section 261 of the 2008 Constitution enables the president to choose chief ministers from among the members of a given state and regional hluttaw. In March this year, the NLD used its parliamentary majority to reject a proposed amendment to allow state and regional hluttaws to elect chief ministers. The proposal was backed by the USDP, Tatmadaw MPs and some ethnic parties such as the ANP.

The NLD insists the reform can only happen once the Tatmadaw’s constitutional allocation of 25 percent of seats in all hluttaws is scrapped. The party fears it would otherwise allow Tatmadaw MPs to ally with smaller parties to install a military-aligned chief minister in states where the NLD does not have a majority.

However, the Tatmadaw used its veto on constitutional change earlier this year to reject an NLD proposal to reduce its share of parliamentary seats. This means that, for the NLD, reform to section 261 would ultimately depend on negotiations with the military over its continued role in politics, and would be off the table in any talks with ethnic parties.

“We will amend section 261 if the constitution becomes a real democratic constitution,” Myo Nyunt told Frontier. “But if the military wants to amend section 261 of the constitution and they want to negotiate, the NLD is ready to negotiate.”

While many ethnic parties support a reduction in the military’s political role, it still rankles that even with a majority or plurality of seats in their state hluttaw they cannot form government, while the party that dominates the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or Union parliament, is able to choose a president who makes virtually all appointments, down to the the state and regional level, outside of military-controlled ministries.

However, the results of the November election mean this objection is, in most ethnic states, largely a question of principle. The NLD won a majority of seats in every state and regional hluttaw besides in Rakhine, where the ANP emerged once more as the largest party, and Shan and Kayah states, where the election delivered a hung hluttaw despite the NLD winning the largest number of seats.

An election sub-commission official in Sittwe holds up a vote for the Arakan National Party. (Kaung Mratt Naing | Frontier)
An election sub-commission official in Sittwe holds up a vote for the Arakan National Party on November 8. (Kaung Mratt Naing | Frontier)

Room to negotiate?

Although voting was cancelled in 20 out of 35 Rakhine State Hluttaw constituencies on November 8 – wiping out most of the ANP’s strongholds in the north and centre of the state, while preserving the NLD’s stronghold in the southern townships – the ANP still managed to win seven seats in the state assembly. This was ahead of the NLD’s haul of five state seats, and the two won by the Arakan Front Party, a rival Rakhine party whose members broke away from the ANP ahead of the election. ­

“Since we won the most seats in the state hluttaw, we still hope that the chief minister will be from the ANP,” said Pe Than, a member of the ANP’s policy steering committee and the incumbent Pyithu Hluttaw MP for Myebon, who was unable to recontest his seat because of the vote cancellations.

If the NLD is genuine about federalism, it should ensure that parties with pluralities in state hluttaws are able to choose their own chief ministers, analyst Ye Tun said.

Pe Than said this should not be a problem for the NLD since chief ministers would still govern under the authority of the Union president.

Ethnic parties argue that NLD appointments to these positions often pit chief ministers against their own constituents. They cite as examples the naming of a bridge in Mon State after Bogyoke Aung San and the erection of a statue of him in Kayah State ­­– both moves supported by the respective NLD chief ministers but strongly opposed by local activist groups as signs of Bamar chauvinism.

“The ministers have to obey the NLD,” Ye Tun said. “They ignore the voices of ethnic people.”

Pe Than said ignoring the wishes of local voters may also doom ethnic parties to irrelevance.

“If ethnic voters believe that it does not matter how many seats their ethnic party wins ­– that if a candidate from the main party can win just one seat in their state and become chief minister – it will be difficult for ethnic parties to survive,” he said.

The NLD has remained evasive on the subject of state and regional appointments. Asked if the party plans to choose chief ministers from ethnic parties, party spokesperson Myo Nyunt said only that it would “negotiate” with the parties directly on a state-by-state basis.

“We will consider the points raised by ethnic parties and we will negotiate which points are acceptable or not,” he told Frontier.

But despite talk of “negotiation”, ethnic parties have very little leverage, given their overall poor performance in the election. The exception are parties in Shan and Kayah states, where, lacking a majority, the NLD will have to cut deals in order to control the state parliament. But even in these states, the bargaining power of successful ethnic parties is diminished by the NLD’s ultimate authority over state government appointments.

Nonetheless, KSPP chair Manam Tu Ja said he believed the open letter was a positive preliminary move by the NLD that may lead to fruitful talks with ethnic parties in the coming months.

“It’s time to get down to work,” he said.

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