The race in Rakhine

A fascinating contest is emerging in Rakhine State, the only state where local parties performed better than the Union Solidarity and Development Party in 2010.

It’s only a month to voting day and among the election news attracting attention is the campaign trip by National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Rakhine State from October 16 to 18. The NLD leader’s decision has excited interest, including among Myanmar political analysts and foreign news agencies, for several reasons.

Firstly, the Rakhine are strong chauvinists who are dedicated to Rakhine State and most are expected to vote for Rakhine parties. Secondly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is regarded as being sympathetic to the minority Muslims and Rohingyas and it tends to view the situation in Rakhine from a human rights perspective. Many Rakhine believe the propaganda being spread by rivals of the NLD that it would defend the rights of the Muslim minority if it comes to power.

This week I would like to explore the campaign strategies of the Rakhine parties and the main objectives of Rakhine chauvinists.

As is the case in many other ethnic minority areas, at least two strong political parties emerged in Rakhine after the 1990 elections. The Arakan League for Democracy formed an alliance with the NLD in the 1990 election, from which it emerged victorious. In 2010, the ALD followed the lead set by the NLD and boycotted the election. The other main party is the Rakhine National Development Party, headed by Dr Aye Maung, which contested the 2010 polls and won 16 seats in the Union parliament and 18 seats in the Rakhine State assembly, a total of 34 seats. This compared favourably to the performance of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won 13 seats at the Union level and 14 at the state level, a total of 27 seats. Rakhine is the only state in which a local party’s performance surpassed that of the well-funded, military-backed USDP.

In June 2013, the RNDP and the ALD reached agreement to merge as the Rakhine National Party, which was founded in January 2014. Similar moves have been made by parties in other ethnic minority states, such as Shan, Mon and Chin, but Rakhine is the only state where such a merger has been successful.

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In preparing for the election, the Rakhine National Party has followed democratic principles. In situations where more than one member wanted to contest a constituency, the candidate was decided in a vote by party members in the constituency. Although this lead to problems in some constituencies, the RNP will field candidates in 62 of the 64 seats being contested in Rakhine.

The election goals of the RNP are to win a majority of seats in the Rakhine hluttaw, and form a state government with an RNP member as chief minister.

The RNP’s chairman, Dr Aye Maung, has often spoken of Rakhine’s glorious past, a series of wealthy kingdoms that culminated in the golden age of the Mrauk-U period, before the region fell to the forces of the invading Konbaung dynasty in early 1785.

Rakhine was annexed by the British in 1824. After independence in 1948, the state fell under the direct supervision of the central government. Rakhine suffered from neglect and a lack of development under military rule and is Myanmar’s second poorest state, after Chin. Dr Aye Maung Rakhine has said it is essential for Rakhine to be governed by the Rakhine people to overcome this situation.

An obstacle to appointing a Rakhine chief minister is Section 261 of the constitution, which stipulates that the president appoints a chief minister who then forms a government. Dr Aye Maung said that in the vote for a president in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the RNP will support the candidate whose policy is for state and regional hluttaws to choose their own chief minister.

Dr Aye Maung aspires to the role and that is why he is contesting a state seat, Mann-Aung constituency, rather than seeking election to the Amyotha Hluttaw, as he did in 2010. The constitution stipulates that the chief minister must be a successful state or region hluttaw candidate.

The RNP leader’s main rival for the chief minister’s position is the incumbent, U Maung Maung Ohn, a former general and Deputy Minister Minister for Home Affairs, who is contesting a state seat.

U Maung Maung Ohn was chosen by President U Thein Sein to become chief minister in June 2014, replacing U Hla Maung Tin, whose resignation was announced in state-run media.

The race to become chief minister of Rakhine will be one of the most interesting contests of the election.

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