Free of party politics, independent candidates like U Khin Hlaing and Daw Nyo Nyo Thin look to bring an outside scrutiny to bear on the next parliament.
As the battle lines are drawn for November’s election, on a national level the vote is being billed as a straight fight between the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party and its opposition, the National League for Democracy.
Meanwhile, there are another 91 political parties registered for the November 8 vote, ghting on issues ranging from ethnic rights, to farmers’ rights to equality for women.
Then there are the independents; those individuals running who are not aligned to a registered political party. Of the 6,189 candidates registered for the election, 323 will be running as independents nationwide, according to an official announcement in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
USDP senior officials U Aung Min and U Soe Thane, who were ministers and stepped down to be able to run for parliament, will be going solo after they were blocked by the party leadership from running for their coveted seats in Kayah State.
As reported in a previous issue of Frontier, Rohingya MP U Shwe Maung, formerly a USDP member, had planned to run independently in Rakhine State but was denied by election officials who banned him, saying his parents were not Myanmar citizens — a claim he rejects. The same fate struck other independent Muslim candidates, like Abu Taher, who was on the ballot in 2010, and Abdul Rasheed, a candidate who was going to run for the Amyotha Hluttaw in a seat encompassing Sittwe.
Rasheed was disquali ed because the Rakhine State Election Commission claimed his parents were not Myanmar citizens at the time of his birth. The rejected candidate disputed this and posted the evidence online as well as lodging an appeal, which was also rejected.
“The decision is a violation of law,” wrote Rasheed on LinkedIn. “I want an international election tribunal to review this case.”
Some mainstream Bamar candidates faced a bumpy road as well.
In the absence on the ballot in 2010 of the NLD, lawyer U Hla Myo Myint ran as an independent candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, losing to the USDP candidate U Aung Kyi, then the Minister of Labour. He was recommended by the NLD township committee to run for the same seat for the party this year, but the Central Election Committee instead chose Daw Phyu Phyu Thin, who currently holds the seat.
Having been rejected by the party, U Hla Myo Myint would have liked to have run independently again this year, but he is contracted to the NLD until after the election, after which he intends to resign from the party.
A 2013-14 survey by the International Republican Institute found that 36 percent of respondents would vote for a political party based on the party leader, while only 12 percent would vote based on a candidate’s quality.
“To be an independent MP in Myanmar is very difficult. Finance is not too much of a problem,” said U Hla Myo Myint, echoing a belief of all of the independent MPs interviewed for this article, “but most voters are only interested in the party. They only know about the USDP or the NLD, so for an independent MP it can be very difficult for people to know what you are doing.”
Fighting for change
Since being elected to the Yangon Regional Parliament in 2010, Dr Nyo Nyo Thinn has been outspoken on issues related to corruption, land confiscation and government practices. Keen to improve her influence, this year she will be running as an independent Pyithu Hluttaw candidate in Bahan Township.
Approached by the NLD earlier this year to run for the party in the same constituency, she said her application was – like U Hla Myo Myint and a number of other high profile gures, including Ko Ko Gyi – rejected by the Central Election Committee of the party. Just days after the news broke, Daw Nyo Nyo Thin announced that she would be running independently against the NLD.
“It is not a problem between me and the NLD, but one or two people in the CEC do not like me,” she said in an interview at her campaign office, in the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda. “They accuse me of being an activist. I am very active in education reform and I think some NLD leaders don’t like this.”
When asked who those party leaders might be, she smiled and refused to elaborate. “People know about me, about my performance in the past. They know I have campaigned against corruption and major projects before, so everybody knows I am a fighter,” she said.
Although it is not uncommon for MPs to puff their chests and boast about their achievements months before an election, Dr Nyo Nyo Thin’s track record is indeed impressive.
In September last year, a city expansion plan known as the New Yangon City Project was halted by the regional government. In a chamber that was keen for the project to go ahead, Dr Nyo Nyo Thin was a rare voice of opposition, declaring that private companies had obtained the land illegally. Likewise, she spoke out regularly against five development projects located close to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which were halted in July.
For both projects, she said the regional government were not willing to discuss her grievances, so she gained support from civil society, media and the Union government.
“I have fought several issues at the local level, so if I can go to the national level, I can fight more. I can scrutinise every national project and I am quite sure that most national projects are corrupt,” she said.
While Dr Nyo Nyo Thin aims to influence politics at a national level, other independent MPs are focused on making changes locally.
In December last year, U Khin Hlaing was one of the four first democratically elected members of the Yangon City Development Committee. In 2010, he ran as an independent candidate for the Amyotha Hluttaw in Laputta Township, Ayeyarwady Region and in the 2012 by-election he ran as an independent candidate for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Mayangone Township. Both times he lost.
In charge of the YCDC’s Yangon West division, U Khin Hlaing hopes to take advantage of the relationship he has built with local voters and will run for the Pyithu Hluttaw seat in Kyimyindaing Township in November. He said he has had much success in Kyimyindaing Township in his YCDC role in building infrastructure and halting controversial projects.
“The people in my constituency have seen the work I have done [for YCDC] and they will support me, I believe this. I have spoken to my constituents and they have told me that they do not believe in the USDP or the NLD candidates in my constituency. The people in Kyimyindaing want me to enter parliament,” he said.
Asked why he has not joined other parties, he said that he does not believe in them and that he can be more productive by carrying out things on his own.
“I am a businessman, so I can bring jobs to this area. I also help farmers deal with land that has been taken by the government. The other parties, I do not believe in them, they have so many problems and have done nothing to build up this country,” U Khin Hlaing said.
Free of party ties
Far from being stifled by not being a member of a registered party, Dr Nyo Nyo Thin believes that being an independent candidate works in her favour.
Her argument is further strengthened when considering that party policies, both within the NLD and the USDP, are controlled by just a few key players, with little say from those further down the ladder. The NLD Central Executive Committee’s decision to ignore township committee suggestions for candidates is just one examples.
“Some constituents think that because I am independent I cannot change very much. They think that only the big parties like the USDP or NLD can change things, but it is not like that. I am a legal scholar and have experience in checking the government and making it accountable,” Daw Nyo Nyo Thinn said.
“We can make many alliances on many issues, but our alliances need to be issue by issue. I do not have to agree with the party’s policy, so I am much more independent than other candidates.”