National League for Democracy activists campaign with swagger in the Tanintharyi Region capital Dawei on September 27. (Dawei Watch)

Tanintharyi Region’s boring election

The election in the southern coastal region is expected to be a walkover for the National League for Democracy, despite a more crowded electoral field and bitter disappointment in the regional administration.

By DAWEI WATCH

Despite a big increase in the number of election candidates in Tanintharyi Region compared to 2015, the most likely scenario is another overwhelming triumph for the National League for Democracy on November 8.

This might seem like a surprise for some, given that the party has led a deeply unpopular regional administration whose chief was embroiled in one of Myanmar’s most high-profile corruption scandals to date.

Five years ago, the NLD won every constituency in Tanintharyi, which occupies a narrow strip of land in southeastern Myanmar between the Andaman Sea and the mountains bordering Thailand. Despite winning a landslide nationally, the party only repeated this clean sweep in Magway Region. A similar performance is likely this year, suggesting that most voters’ minds are fixed on national rather than local politics while casting their ballot.

“In a multi-party democracy, I expect to have candidates from different parties but only one party counts in Tanintharyi,” said U Saw Harvey, who was the Karen ethnic affairs minister in the pre-2016 Tanintharyi government. The former Union Solidarity and Development Party member lost this post in the 2015 election to the NLD candidate but is re-contesting it in November for the Kayin People’s Party.

When the campaign period officially began on September 8, the bright red NLD flag with the fighting peacock symbol was unfurled across the regional capital, Dawei, and even fluttered in remote villages in Tanintharyi’s jungle-clad mountains.

“In my jurisdiction, it seems like not much is going to change,” said U Zaw Wann, administrator of the Pyin Phyu Thar village tract in Thayetchaung Township, about 30 kilometres south of Dawei.

Daw Nu Nu Hlaing, general secretary of the Dawei-based Tavoyan Women’s Union, agreed that there was little credible opposition to the NLD in the region.

However, the NLD’s apparent dominance has not prevented a more crowded field of contestants this year.

A total of 269 candidates, including five independents, are standing in Tanintharyi this year, 88 more than in 2015. They are competing for a total of 43 seats: 10 in the Pyithu Hluttaw, 12 in the Amyotha Hluttaw, 20 in the Tanintharyi Region Hluttaw, and the seat for the regional government’s Karen ethnic affairs minister. 

The number of parties has risen from 12 to 14 and includes six that are competing in the region for the first time. One of the newcomers is the Mon Unity Party, formed by a merger of three ethnic Mon parties: the Mon National Party, All Mon Region Democracy Party and the Mon National Representative Party. 

The two other ethnic-based parties standing in Tanintharyi are the Kayin People’s Party and Dawei Nationalities Party. The DNP, which represents the ethnic Dawei people, which the government labels a Bamar sub-group, is fielding candidates in eight regional but no Union-level constituencies. The party’s message to voters is “cast only one ballot in three for the victory of the Dawei [people]”, in reference to the fact that most voters receive a total of three ballots (one for the Pyithu Hluttaw, one of the Amyotha Hluttaw and one for the regional hluttaw), besides ethnic Karen, who receive an extra ballot to elect the Karen ethnic affairs minister for Tanintharyi.

A leaflet with the campaign pledges of the Dawei Nationalities Party. (Dawei Watch)

The KPP and the MUP are fielding 15 and 11 candidates, respectively, who are seeking election to the regional and Union parliaments. 

The NLD, Union Solidarity and Development Party, Union Betterment Party, and United Democratic Party are contesting every constituency.

The UBP, the party led by ex-Tatmadaw general and former Union parliament speaker U Shwe Mann, has ambitions for Tanintharyi that reflect its lofty goals nationally, which many would find far-fetched in the extreme.

“We will win 80 percent of seats,” said U Aye Han, the party’s chair in Tanintharyi, saying by way of explanation that, “As much as possible, we have chosen candidates who are civic-minded and philanthropic.” 

The UDP is not quite as optimistic about its chances in the region but is still bullish for an upstart party with limited name recognition. “We expect that our party will win about one quarter of the votes in Tanintharyi,” said U Khin Maung Latt, the party’s regional leader. 

He said the election in the region was a more even contest than many were supposing, and that, far from being assured a landslide, the NLD may only win a quarter of seats. 

However, this assumption did not seem to rest on particularly solid data. Khin Maung Latt said the prediction was based on a survey by the UDP that found only one in four households in the region is flying the NLD flag.

His party has attracted curiosity because, despite being little known, it is fielding more than 1,130 candidates across Myanmar, against a maximum of 1,171, making it second only to the NLD in its reach. The UDP’s chairman, U Kyaw Myint, is an alleged money launderer, a one-time prison escapee and a former exile in Canada who claims to have formerly served with the Communist Party of Burma and the United Wa State Army. Following media exposure, he was arrested at the end of September by police who are investigating his prison escape more than 20 years ago.

Smaller parties are concerned that campaign restrictions imposed because of COVID-19 leave them at a disadvantage. They also complain that the NLD government’s role in COVID-19 prevention and control measures – which requires close interaction with the people – give the ruling party an advantage at the ballot box.

Currently, most rivals to the NLD’s candidates do not have notable public profiles. U Aung Myo Khine, who is contesting Yebyu-2 in the regional hluttaw for the Mon Unity Party, said many candidates vying for seats in the region come from the voluntary sector and lack political experience. 

U Than Win, a local election observer, explained that several more influential figures opted not to run because they thought it would be fruitless to compete against the NLD, and because the NLD’s internal politics made it difficult to seek that party’s nomination.

An exception in terms of political know-how and public renown is former Yangon Region Hluttaw MP Daw Nyo Nyo Thin, who is seeking election to the Amyotha Hluttaw as an independent in Tanintharyi-9, a constituency that encompasses Tanintharyi Township.

Nyo Nyo Thin gained a reputation as an outspoken anti-corruption campaigner after being elected to the Yangon Region Hluttaw for the Democratic Party in 2010. She failed to win the Pyithu Hluttaw seat of Bahan in Yangon as an independent in 2015 after the NLD spurned her application to stand for the party. She told the media in a press conference in Yangon on August 4 this year that she had chosen to run in Tanintharyi Region because she wanted to “shake up politics in an area where it is asleep”.  

Nyo Nyo Thin acknowledged that she faced a struggle as an outsider to the region and as an independent. “I have sometimes been bullied by local political forces because I do not come from Tanintharyi and this is the biggest challenge I face,” she said.

The region faces a pressing mix of problems that include rapacious natural resource extraction, a depressed economy that has driven significant labour migration to Thailand, and access to electricity. By common consensus, the NLD regional government has fared poorly in meeting these challenges. Chief Minister Daw Lei Lei Maw was herself sentenced in May to 30 years in prison over a corruption scandal that involved several government contracts, including the supply of electricity to Dawei District by a private company.

Yet, despite disappointment and anger at the regional administration, local voters are still eager for the NLD – and in particular, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – to continue leading the country.

Ko Aung Nge, a land rights activist, said that although he was not satisfied with the performance of the NLD government, he would still vote for the party because he believes that only Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership could deliver true democracy.

“Despite my disappointment with the NLD, I still want it to win the election,” he said. But pointing again to the party’s disappointing first term in office, he added, “I’m still concerned that history will repeat itself.”

By Ben Dunant

By Ben Dunant

Ben Dunant has been working as a journalist and researcher in Myanmar since 2014. He is Managing Editor at Frontier and has also contributed to Voice of America, Nikkei Asian Review, The Diplomat and New Mandala.
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