Tale of Five Elections

Bawlakhe

An elderly woman prays at a monastery in Ywathit village, Bawlakhe Township, on August 21. Campaigning in the township has been mostly tame, but some parties have begun accusing one another of unethical electoral tactics – including pressuring elderly voters casting advance votes in the villages to vote for particular candidates.

Parties trade barbs in battle for Bawlakhe

Rival parties competing in the central Kayah State township are accusing one another of dishonest tactics, and even potential voter fraud, ahead of Sunday’s election.

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 two articles on Bawlakhe.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

“We‘ve received no complaints and it’s all going well.”

U Kyaw Lin, secretary of the Bawlakhe Township election sub-commission, painted a placid picture of the thinly populated Kayah State Township. He was speaking to Frontier on November 6, just two days before the vote.

Campaigning in Bawlakhe, which borders Thailand to the east,  has been low key. Due to nationwide restrictions put in place to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, most candidates are spreading their message by going door-to-door, while maintaining social distancing, and organising rallies of no more than 50 people.

But Kyaw Lin’s claims do not appear to tally with what some parties competing in Bawlakhe are saying. Despite his protestations that all is well, rival parties have accused one another of resorting to under-hand tactics, and even potential voter fraud, to try and win the five seats on offer in Bawlakhe – two each in the state hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw, or Upper House, and one in the Pyithu Hluttaw, or Lower House.

Campaigning in Bawlakhe – much like the town itself, seen here on August 21 – has largely been calm, though parties have accused one another of acting unethically. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Four of the seats are currently held by the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, with the other – Kayah-9 in the Amyotha Hluttaw – won in 2015 by retired Tatmadaw naval commander and former President’s Office minister U Soe Thane, who ran as an independent candidate because of a factional squabble within the party. He has returned to the USDP this year and will contest Bawlake’s Pyithu Hluttaw seat.

Soe Thane is one of 40 candidates from eight political parties, as well as one independent, who are competing for the seats, and in such a competitive race, the accusations between parties are piling up.

Sai Gyi, the National League for Democracy’s Bawlakhe Township chair, who ran unsuccessfully for the Kayah-2 seat in the state hluttaw in 2015, expressed concern about the potential misuse of advance voting in the upcoming election, especially by military personnel, to benefit the USDP. His son, Sai Lin Lin Oo, is running for the NLD this year for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat.

Out-of-constituency advance voting by soldiers is shrouded in secrecy and remains a potent fraud risk. In townships with resident military populations, election sub-commissions posted ballots to soldiers serving temporarily in other parts of the country. The soldiers had between October 8 and 21 to mark these ballots in circumstances arranged by their commanding officers, beyond the view of any election officials, let alone independent monitors or political party observers. The marked ballots then had to be posted back to the relevant township sub-commission for counting on election day.

Bawlakhe is home to three Tatmadaw battalions and one Border Guard Force base, and according to the township sub-commission, of the township’s more than 8,000 eligible voters, 980 are soldiers or their family members. Of these, 72 have cast out-of-constituency advance ballots. This may not sound like a lot, but it could make a difference in a township with such few voters.

In the 2015 election, 1,292 of Bawlakhe’s 6,802 registered voters cast advance votes, the majority of which were out-of-constituency advance ballots from soldiers, according to staff at the township sub-commission.

A man rides his motorbike by a USDP campaign billboard in Bawlakhe on August 21. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

In that vote, Sai Gyi lost out to U Soe Reh from the USDP for the Bawlakhe-2 state hluttaw seat, with 586 votes to the Soe Reh’s 939. Of the 2,821 total votes in that contest five years ago, 551 were cast in advance, with the USDP candidate receiving 323 and the NLD 57, according to UEC data from 2015.

Advance votes did not determine the result of that race – before advance ballots were counted, the USDP’s Soe Reh was still 87 votes ahead of Sai Gyi based on ballots cast on election day – but Sai Gyi worries that the lack of transparency built into the process still leaves the USDP with a handy tool for clawing back its advantage in the township. In contrast to 2015, on November 8 military personnel and their families nationwide will cast their ballots in polling stations located outside military cantonments, but Sai Gyi pointed out that, despite this reform, the advance voting process remains unchanged.

However, U Than Htut Aung, who is contesting Bawlakhe-2 for the USDP, disagrees that his party will automatically receive votes from military personnel in the area.

“I think they can vote freely for candidates as they wish to. If they vote for us, it’s because of their wish, not because of pressure [from their seniors],” he said.

It’s not only the USDP, however, that is being accused of using or benefiting from dishonest methods to win votes in the upcoming poll.

Lin Lin Oo, the NLD’s candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Bawlakhe, said he had witnessed members of both the USDP and the Union Betterment Party, which was founded by former Tatmadaw general U Shwe Mann, transporting elderly voters to polling stations for advance voting by car and motorbike and “persuading elders to vote for them”.

He was referring to the process for in-constituency advance voting, which the UEC extended to voters aged over 60 nationwide in order to protect this more vulnerable segment of the population from contracting COVID-19 in crowded polling stations on election day. These older voters could cast ballots between October 29 and November 5 at makeshift polling stations in their ward or village tract. Turnout was extraordinarily high in Bawlakhe: township sub-commission secretary Kyaw Lin told Frontier on November 6 that of 649 eligible elderly voters, about 600 had voted in advance.

“Some village-tracts are made up of three small villages, and if the polling station is set up in one village, then [the people] from the other two have to go there,” Lin Lin Oo told Frontier on October 30. “Because of that, parties are taking them to the polling stations and telling them to vote for their parties.” He said he had reported the issue to the township sub-commission, urging them to address it before Sunday’s vote.

Lin Lin Oo said he expected the USDP to perform well in Bawlakhe due to the heavy military presence but said the results were hard to predict amid the pandemic, which has muted campaigning. He put his party’s chances at “50-50”.

Meanwhile, Daw Nyunt May, who leads the UBP’s Bawlakhe campaign, told Frontier on October 30 that members of her team had witnessed members of another political party, which she refused to name, pressuring older voters casting advance ballots to vote for “a particular candidate”. She rejected accusations that her own party was providing transport in exchange for votes.

Daw Nyunt May, head of the Union Betterment Party’s Bawlakhe campaign, on August 21. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Nyunt May referred to an incident at a polling station for advance voting in Ywathit village, close to the headquarters of the No.1005 Border Guard Force.

“Elders don’t know how to cast [their vote] and don’t have a preferred party, and polling station workers are taking advantage of this by pretending to help these elders,” she said. “We have asked the village-tract commission to take action.”

‘Forever green’: Kayah’s Bawlakhe Township beats back the red wave

Former Tatmadaw vice admiral U Soe Thane can take much of the credit for the USDP’s sweep of seats in the Kayah State township of Bawlakhe – one of the military-aligned party’s few wins on November 8.

This is the final article about Bawlakhe in Frontier’s Tale of Five Elections series. We have followed the election in five townships across the country, capturing events and local voices through the contest and its aftermath. Scroll down for the first three articles on Bawlakhe.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

The National League for Democracy’s overwhelming election victories on November 8 included flipping several previous Union Solidarity and Development Party strongholds from green to red, but the sparsely-populated Kayah State township of Bawlakhe remains an oasis of green. There, the military-backed party swept all five seats.

It helped that the township has three Tatmadaw battalions and a Border Guard Force. But perhaps even more important was the largesse of a 71-year-old former naval commander, U Soe Thane.

The former president’s office minister in the USDP government began his civilian political career in 2010, when he won the Pyithu Hluttaw seat of Kyunsu Township in Tanintharyi Region for the USDP. In 2015, amid ructions in the party, he won Kayah-9 in the Amyotha Hluttaw, a constituency within Bawlakhe, as an independent. He returned to the party fold this year as its candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat of Bawlakhe, which is currently held by U Aye Maung, also of the USDP.

Map by Thibi

Soe Thane defeated his NLD rival, Sai Lin Lin Oo, by 1,200 votes on November 8. This is a sizeable margin in Bawlakhe, which has little more than 8,000 voters – meaning even a small amount of spending by deep-pocketed candidates can go a long way. Of the 7,203 votes cast in the race, Soe Thane received 3,296 to Lin Lin Oo’s 2,062.

Soe Thane’s popularity owes much to his big local spending, and his image among residents as a powerful man who can get things done for their benefit. Ahead of the 2015 election, he distributed mobile phones and other gifts in the township, residents and local political party members said. He has continued to bestow largesse on the community – including the donation of an ambulance in May to a local charity – creating a sense of obligation among local voters, many of whom feel they need to thank him at the ballot box.

“U Soe Thane’s giving doesn’t just support individuals – he provides for the long-term benefit of all,” said U Zaw Zaw Oo, chair of the Bawlakhe-based charity, Forever Hands Social Welfare Association. “We can only repay him with votes.”

Other USDP candidates said they benefitted from Soe Thane’s influence as well.

U Soe Thane as minister of industry gives a speech during the 18th International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo on May 25, 2012. (AFP)

“U Soe Thane’s support is crucial and has enabled us to achieve success again,” said U Kyaw Than, the party’s winning candidate for Kayah-3, one of two Amyotha Hluttaw constituencies within Bawlakhe. He defeated NLD challenger U Win Zaw by 1,498 votes to 1,099.

Kyaw Than denied claims that he won only because of the support of military voters, saying the USDP has been helping to develop Bawlakhe and uplift its people since 2010.

“I have supported the people as much as I can – that’s why they support us,” he told Frontier on November 12. “When I return to parliament, the first thing I will propose, again, is to build a bridge and a bypass road that were not approved by the outgoing parliament.”

How votes were split between parties on November 8 (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

Still, strong military support has undeniably contributed to the USDP’s continued success in Bawlakhe. The three Tatmadaw battalions and the Border Guard Force account for about 980 of the more than 8,000 voters in in the township, and almost all of their votes went to the USDP, even though soldiers and their family members were voting outside military cantonments for the first time because of a reform to election by-laws enacted this year.

They helped put the state hluttaw seat for Bawlakhe-1 in the hands of U Soe Reh, whose tally of 1,414 votes included 450 out of 556 votes cast by soldiers and their dependents. His NLD rival, Daw Mi Mi Maw, received 1,061 votes, of which only 10 came from the military. Soe Reh won the Bawlakhe-2 seat in 2015 but switched constituencies this year.

Mi Mi Maw said she “cannot win” so long as the USDP is able to rely on the military vote. “I feel sorry for those who voted for me, and I think the winning MP represents the army more than civilians,” she said.

U Zaw Zaw Oo, chair of the Forever Hands Social Welfare Association, said USDP candidate U Soe Thane’s generous donations to the community meant voters felt they had to “repay him” with votes. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

NLD members allege that another reason for the USDP’s clean sweep in Bawlakhe was that its members had threatened voters.

“The day before the election, USDP members threatened to kill the residents of Wan Palet village if they voted for the NLD,” said NLD township chair Sai Gyi. “We have video evidence and are planning to file a complaint with the election sub-commission.”

USDP MP-elect Kyaw Than said the aggrieved NLD candidates were welcome to file a complaint if they had evidence. “They are attacking us all the time,” he said. “They say the USDP is a party of thieves and that the people will be under the military if they vote for it … But they have a hard time beating us [in Bawlakhe].”

U Kyaw Lin, secretary of the township sub-commission, said on November 19 that no complaints had yet been lodged.

U Kyaw Than, the USDP’s winning candidate for the upper house seat of Kayah-3 in Bawlakhe, said former naval commander U Soe Thane’s influence was “crucial” his party’s success in the township. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Parties were lured by Bawlakhe’s tiny electorate – where an individual vote is dozens of times more consequential than in one of the larger Yangon townships with hundreds of thousands of registered voters – and competition was fierce. Nearly 40 candidates from seven parties (eight until the Union Democratic Party was dissolved) ran for the township’s five seats. Turnout, at about 88 percent, was far higher than in 2015, when it was just 55pc, according to the township sub-commission.

“The turnout was significant, but the number of invalid votes was high,” said Kyaw Lin, adding that the 921 invalid ballots accounted for about 12.7pc of the total. He said 80pc of them were due to voter error, which he attributed to a lack of voter education, and 20pc were due to mistakes made by polling staff mishandling ballots.

Lin Lin Oo, the NLD candidate defeated by Soe Thane, said he planned to educate the public for future elections. “People have little political knowledge; if we want to win next time we need to raise their political awareness,” he said.

How voters turned out on November 8. (Source: UEC; created by Thibi)

Mi Mi Maw said the NLD also lacked unity and that many newer members were motivated more by self-interest than loyalty to the party. She claimed the USDP had conspired with the UDP, National Unity Party and the Kayah State Democratic Party to deny votes to the NLD, and had even paid NLD members to betray their party (Frontier could not confirm these allegations).

She herself had left the NLD and ran unsuccessfully in 2015 for the Bawlakhe-2 state hluttaw seat as a Kayah Unity Democracy Party candidate. “When I went back to the party, I found that some members were [secretly] working for other parties because they had been paid to do so,” said Mi Mi Maw.

She said a combination of the military vote, Soe Thane’s big spending and local poverty would probably help the USDP win Bawlakhe again in the next general election.

“Unless these things can be changed, Bawlakhe will be forever green.”

Rural Bawlakhe Township under a monsoon sky. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The boss of Bawlakhe: In a Kayah township, one man outshines The Lady

The lavish spending of former naval commander U Soe Thane may keep Bawlakhe safe for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, and COVID-19 restrictions are making matters harder for competitors.

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 Bawlakhe.

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

Early in September, as official campaigning began, Kayah State found itself in an enviable position: it was the only state or region in Myanmar free of COVID-19 cases. Then, on October 15, the seemingly inevitable happened: Kayah announced its first case.

But the state was never exempt from guidelines set by the Union Election Commission for the campaign period, which ends on November 6, two days before the election. They limit rallies to no more than 50 people and include social distancing and other measures. 

So Kayah’s lone COVID-19 case hasn’t changed much for candidates in Bawlakhe Township, where 40 from eight parties and one independent are vying for five open seats. Several told Frontier their strategies have consisted mostly of trying to engage voters by canvassing door-to-door while keeping a safe distance, and holding rallies of fewer than 50 people.

Union Solidarity and Development Party MP U Kyaw Than, who is seeking re-election to the Kayah-3 seat in the Amyotha Hluttaw, seems unconcerned.

“I don’t mind not being able to hold events with many people. My constituents know me well and I’ve explained to them what I’ve been doing in parliament for the past five years,” he said.

Map created by Thibi

Bawlakhe is far from the only township in Myanmar where incumbents are more sanguine about the restrictions than their challengers. However, it is one of the few places where politics is dominated by a single politician who isn’t Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The township is a USDP stronghold. The military-backed party swept Bawlakhe’s seats in 2015, creating an island of green in a state that overwhelmingly turned red. Of the seven seats it won in the state, four – both state hluttaw seats and one seat each in the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw – were in Bawlakhe.

The other Amyotha Hluttaw seat in Bawlakhe, Kayah-9, was won by an independent, U Soe Thane. The former Tatmadaw naval commander and president’s office minister was prevented from competing under the USDP banner by a factional squabble within the party. He has returned to the USDP this year to contest the Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Bawlakhe.

Known for his wealth – and for spending significant chunks of that wealth directly on voters – Soe Thane’s continued largesse makes for a David-and-Goliath-like competition with his main challenger, the NLD’s Sai Lin Lin Oo.

As Frontier previously reported, for many Bawlakhe residents, elections are a chance to cash in, and no one has quite as much cash to offer as Soe Thane. In May of this year he donated an ambulance worth more than K10 million to the Bawlakhe-based Forever Hands Social Welfare Association.

“We don’t care what seat he runs for, as long as he is running in Bawlakhe,” said U Zaw Zaw Oo, the association’s leader. He believes most of the association’s 3,200 members will vote for Soe Thane with him.

“Perhaps not all members, but I can guarantee that the votes of 720 permanent members will go to Soe Thane; this is the only way we can thank him for what he has done for us,” he told Frontier in August.

U Soe Thane as minister of industry gives a speech during the 18th International Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo on May 25, 2012. (AFP)

These votes will go a long way in a township with little more than 8,000 voters, and even NLD candidates acknowledge Soe Thane’s power.

“Speaking frankly, he could still maintain [the USDP’s] stronghold in Bawlakhe,” said Daw Mi Mi Maw, the NLD candidate for the state seat of Bawlakhe-1. His image as the township’s patron-in-chief was so firmly rooted in residents’ minds, she said, that  “even if a bridge is built with government funds, they will call it the U Soe Thane bridge”.

Mi Mi Maw also feels disadvantaged by the COVID-19 restrictions.

“I really wanted to hold big events to shore up support, to flip Bawlakhe from a green to a red zone,” she said. “But I have to prioritise people’s health over winning an election.” Instead, she’s been holding small campaign events and canvassing door-to-door, but she said she doubts this will be as effective.

“In my experience, local people are very honest and very stubborn. It is very difficult to get them to change,” she told Frontier. “They assume that U Soe Thane has done many things for them and say they are in debt to him – that if they don’t vote for him they will be in debt to him for the rest of their lives.”

Mi Mi Maw had to get special approval from the NLD’s central executive committee to contest the November election for the party, after breaching a core NLD principle by standing for another party in a previous election.

In 2015 she stood for the state assembly’s Bawlakhe-2 seat as a Kayah Unity Democracy Party candidate but lost to the USDP candidate.

NLD township chair Sai Gyi believes the party lost all seats in 2015 partly because it chose non-residents as candidates.

“I don’t want to lose this time. To make sure we win as many seats as possible, I asked the party to accept Mi Mi Maw, a local resident, as a candidate,” he told Frontier. “Senior party officials accepted my request for the sake of the party.”

NLD candidate for the state seat of Bawlakhe-1 Daw Mi Mi Maw incorporates voter education into her election campaign. (Supplied)

When Frontier travelled to Bawlakhe in July, most residents said they were yet to decide who to vote for, but there were already indications of a strong reservoir of support for Soe Thane.

Despite this, Sai Gyi says he’s confident the NLD will do better than it did in 2015, when the local authorities made it hard for him to field candidates and recruit party members, and the presence of three Tatmadaw battalions and a Tatmadaw-aligned Border Guard Force in the sparsely populated township made it dangerous to oppose the military-backed USDP.

“At the time, the authorities threatened to kill residents if they joined the NLD,” he said. “In military-dominated areas, people were seriously oppressed. I was stomped on with army boots and sent to jail very often.”

Those fears have gradually diminished under the NLD government, he said.

“There is more interest in joining the party. I now have more than 1,000 members. People have come to understand that, even though the USDP won locally, it couldn’t do anything without control of the central government. This year they know that they need to vote for candidates from the party that will form the government.”

NLD township chair Sai Gyi says the heavy military presence in Bawlakhe once made it dangerous to be associated with his party. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Residents and local MPs say that, because of the NLD and USDP’s inability to work together, Bawlakhe has been “left behind” for the last five years.

“The [central] government doesn’t want to help us because its candidates lost here, and our USDP MPs can’t do much when the government ignores their requests,” said U Win Maung, a resident of the township’s Ywathit village. “No wonder we’ve been left behind and are still living in poverty.”

But NLD membership in Bawlakhe is still just half that of the USDP’s 2,000. With Soe Thane’s largesse and the township’s 1,200-plus military votes, the USDP may yet celebrate another landslide in November. “I would be very proud if the NLD won only three [out of five] seats in Bawlakhe,” said Sai Gyi.

U Aye Maung, the USDP township chairman and Pyithu Hluttaw MP, was confident his party could hold Bawlakhe. “We MPs have had some problems in the NLD-dominated parliament … but we did our best, and people know that,” he said. .

He’s standing aside this November to let Soe Thane contest his seat, he said, “because he can do a better job than me of representing the interests of the local people.”

KySDP township chair Saw Nee Ni says that, with few funds and no party office in Bawlakhe, his party has little chance of victory. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Meanwhile, the Kayah State Democratic Party’s township chair, Saw Nee Ni, is gloomy about his party’s prospects in Bawlakhe. The party is a merger of two Kayah-based ethnic parties, the Kayah Unity Democracy Party and the All Nationalities Democracy Party, which both did poorly in 2015. The new party enjoys considerable momentum elsewhere in the state, partly thanks to the backing of ethnic civil society activists who supported the NLD in 2015, but it has only around 200 members in Bawlakhe and very little money.

“Although we’re contesting all seats [in the township], we don’t even have a party office or funds to support our candidates, who are campaigning with their own money,” he told Frontier. “We’re not sure it’ll work.”

While resurgent ethnic parties are poised to redraw the electoral map across much of Myanmar’s ethnic borderlands, in Bawlakhe, it seems, it’s better the devil you know.

A girl cycles past a USDP campaign billboard in Bawlakhe Township, Kayah State, on August 21. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe)
A girl cycles past a USDP campaign billboard in Bawlakhe Township, Kayah State, on August 21. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Bawlakhe Township: Poverty, patronage and the polls

A township in the green, humid centre of Kayah State is a magnet for parties and candidates looking to splurge cash on a tiny electorate in exchange for an easy win.

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

By EI EI TOE LWIN | FRONTIER

Bawlakhe Township, in a hot, low-lying valley in mountainous Kayah State, generally attracts few visitors. The overwhelmingly rural township at the centre of the state is home to about 10,000 residents, of whom more than half are ethnic Kayah. Shan are the next largest community, with a small number of other households belonging to Karen, Chin, Bamar and Rakhine families.

But as an election nears, a certain class of visitor flocks to the township: politicians.

They are drawn for a simple reason. Votes in Myanmar are not created equal, and while a ballot cast in a densely populated township of Yangon has little weight, in thinly populated Bawlakhe, a ballot is virtually weighted in gold.

Map created by Thibi

Voter constituencies are based on administrative divisions. There is one Pyithu Hluttaw, or lower house, seat for each township in the country, regardless of its size, and each township is divided into two seats in the relevant state or regional hluttaw. This creates vast discrepancies in the number of voters allocated to different constituencies – a phenomenon that election scholars call malapportionment. In electing a Pyithu Hluttaw MP, a ballot cast by one of Bawlakhe’s 8,107 eligible voters is worth about 30 times that of a voter in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township, which had 262,308 voters in 2015.

The demarcation of constituencies for the Amyotha Hluttaw boosts the influence of a Bawlakhe voter even further. Although they contain hugely varying numbers of townships, each state and region is allotted 12 upper house seats. So, while in Shan State, which has 55 townships, Amyotha Hluttaw constituencies span multiple townships, in Kayah State, which has only seven townships, most upper house constituencies span only half a township – including in Bawlakhe.

With a relatively tiny number of voters to woo, the field is predictably crowded in the run-up to the November election. Forty-one candidates from eight parties plus an independent are vying for the five seats up for grabs in Bawlakhe. This is an increase in competition from the last election in 2015, when six parties competed.

The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is the incumbent in all but one seat, will contest all races. So will the ruling National League for Democracy, which won the largest haul of seats elsewhere in Kayah in the 2015 election, and the Kayah State Democracy Party, which was formed by the merging of two Kayah-based ethnic parties and is supported by ethnic civil society activists who largely backed the NLD in 2015.

“Political parties’ interest in standing in Bawlakhe has not diminished because they can win with a small number of votes,” said U Kyaw Lin, secretary of the election sub-commission for Bawlakhe District, which contains Bawlakhe and the townships of Mese and Hpasawng at the southern end of the state.

An additional draw, he said, is that “the situation is more stable than other areas.” He was referring to the lack of armed conflict in Bawlakhe, where the military retains tight control with three infantry battalions, supplemented by a Border Guard Force, as ethnic armed groups that come under Tatmadaw command are called.

By far the best-known incumbent in Bawlakhe is U Soe Thane, a former naval commander who was a President’s Office minister in the USDP government. Though the retired vice admiral won the Amyotha Hluttaw seat of Kayah-9 in 2015 as an independent, his lack of party affiliation was due to a factional rift within the USDP, in which he got on the wrong side of powerful parliamentary speaker U Shwe Mann. He’s returned to the USDP fold this year to contest the Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Bawlakhe.

Soe Thane is a wealthy man, and to many residents, elections are a question of how his largesse gets doled out. Residents and political parties say Soe Thane handed out mobile phones and other gifts in 2015 ahead of the official campaign period.

In addition, he used his influence as a senior minister in the USDP government to direct government funds to building roads, bridges and schools in Bawlakhe, despite having been elected to represent Kyunsu in Tanintharyi Region in the previous election. He also supported the renovation of Christian and Buddhist religious buildings and donated at least one emergency vehicle.

This patronage has returned ahead of this year’s election. A member of the Forever Hands Social Welfare Association, based in Bawlakhe, confirmed to Frontier that Soe Thane donated an ambulance worth more than K10 million in May.

Certificate for Pyithu Hluttaw candidate U Soe Thane’s donation of an ambulance to the Forever Hands Social Welfare Association. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

Sai Lin Lin Oo, 27, is running as an NLD candidate for the USDP-held Pyithu Hluttaw seat. His toughest competition, he said, will be Soe Thane’s wallet.

“When voters hear U Soe Thane’s name, they think they will get money. It’s become a habit,” said the former Kantarawaddy Times journalist, who is a member of a legislative advisory committee to the Kayah State parliament and one of the main architects of the NLD’s social media campaign strategy across the state.

“I can’t afford to spend like him,” he said. “The only way I can [win] is to go into the community and meet as many people as possible, explaining to them that I understand their needs because I am a Bawlakhe resident. I remind them that U Soe Thane has not been here for five years to listen to the people.”

The need to maintain physical distance from voters in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 will make this intimate form of campaigning difficult. But Lin Lin Oo expects strong backing from the NLD in the form of volunteers for his campaign. It helps that his father chairs the party’s township central executive committee, of which he is also a member.

NLD candidate Sai Lin Lin Oo says the biggest challenge in taking the Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Bawlakhe is the wallet of his USDP rival. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The desire for quick material rewards is heightened this year by the failure of the area’s staple sesame crop, which is planted in June and harvested from September. Locals otherwise eke out a living as daily wage labourers or run small businesses, such as the small grocery shops that line the main town, but many struggle to get by.

However, Lin Lin Oo hopes to persuade voters that well-thought-out policies for economic development will benefit them more in the long run than handouts from opportunistic politicians. “I want to create job opportunities and economic development through regional development projects,” he said. “That’s my first priority.”

Nang May Thin Kyu, who is in her second year at Loikaw University, has the same priorities. But for the 20-year-old student, that means voting in her first ever election this November for the USDP. She said her entire family will too.

“My biggest wish is to get a job after I graduate so I can support my parents. I hope the candidates I vote for create job opportunities for young people,” she said.

But U Win Maung, a 66-year-old furniture shop owner in Ywathit – a village some 40 kilometres by winding mountain road from Bawlakhe town – said most people in the township see only short-term benefits in elections.

Business owner U Win Maung in Ywathit village laments the low political literacy of local voters. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

One of the short-term benefits come in the form of party signboards. Residents who host them on their property can typically expect a one-off payment of K50,000. These signboards are now visible throughout Bawlakhe Township, including in rural areas – evidence of a pre-election economic stimulus rather than political enthusiasm.

“Most villagers are poor and uneducated,” said Win Maung, whose vote is undecided. “When government officials ask them to attend meetings about village affairs, the first thing they want to know is how much money they’ll get.”

“Most people will vote for the candidate who can give them something.”

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

Ei Ei Toe Lwin

Ei Ei Toe Lwin began working as a journalist in 2010 when she joined the Myanmar Times and has been reporting on Myanmar political affairs for around a decade. Prior to joining Frontier in July 2020 she was chief of staff of the English and Myanmar versions of the Myanmar Times.
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