Myanmar’s ethnic political parties face uphill battle in push for democracy

Myanmar's Lower House of Parliament. Photo: Htoo Tay Zar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Myanmar’s election, ethnic minority parties offer a key alternative for voters disillusioned with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Though their success is key to making the country’s democracy more representative, they face major barriers in this year’s vote.


In the runup to the Myanmar election on November 8, the country’s ethnic minority political parties are struggling to adapt to the challenges of a tumultuous election. Local support has grown in recent years for parties representing the country’s minorities, which account for roughly a third of Myanmar’s population but hold just over 8% of seats in parliament.

This week’s vote will likely see Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party retain power by a large margin despite five embattled years in office. Myanmar’s “first past the post” electoral system plays to the advantage of the NLD while leaving smaller parties with fewer resources at the margins. This year, the country’s election authority—the Union Election Commission (UEC), appointed by the president—has also made a series of moves that benefited incumbents and put ethnic parties at a disadvantage.

But the NLD leadership has struggled to deliver on promises to reform the 2008 constitution and reduce the military’s hold over the civilian government.

Conflicts between the military and ethnic armed groups have only intensified since 2015 and the central government has pushed a growing wave of foreign-backed investment projects—from roads and railways to power plants and dams—many of them in the country’s seven ethnic states.

As voters outside Myanmar’s ethnic Burman core have become disillusioned with the NLD, a number of ethnic parties have gained ground as they push for a more representative democracy.

“The 2020 election is critically important for ethnic parties,” Cheery Zahau, a Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) executive and founder of the Women’s League of Chinland, told The Irrawaddy. “Local governments can do nothing under this centralized system. [Ethnic] people have suffered the brunt of this. They lag behind politically, economically and socially.”

“Ethnic equality, self-determination and federal democracy are the ultimate goals of ethnic people,” she added.

In Kachin and Shan states, ethnic parties draw on wide support for federalism

In Shan State, the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) is continuing to build momentum and seeking to become a more inclusive, broader force for democratic reform.

Photo: Kwantonge at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The SNLD was founded following the 8888 Uprising against the military. Under the dictatorship, the party recruited through Shan cultural and literary groups and went on to win the most seats of any ethnic party in the sham 1990 elections.

The party boycotted elections in 2010 but in 2015, the party won 15 seats in the legislature and became the fourth-largest party in parliament after the NLD, the military proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Arakan National Party (ANP).

This year, SNLD leaders say the party is running on a platform of reforms to build a “multi-ethnic national reconciliation government”, including constitutional amendments. The party is also running a number of candidates who aren’t ethnic Shan—including members of Bamar, Kachin, Karen, Kayah and Lahu communities.

But the party’s ability to organize is still limited by the state’s armed conflicts and the influence of militias in eastern Shan.

“Our political parties do not have weapons, so they are always at a disadvantage compared to the militias,” party secretary Sai Lek told Frontier Myanmar.

Further north in Kachin State, the much newer Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) has pulled together broad support in a diverse region home to a mix of Kachin, Shan, Lisu and other ethnic groups. Founded in June 2019, the party has united supporters of a number of defunct ethnic Kachin parties. In the 2015 election, ethnic parties won only around 5% of votes in the state.

This year, the KSPP is running on promises to support displaced people, protect natural resources and address Kachin State’s significant drug problem.

Tang Hpre, a village relocated for the Myitsone Dam project. Photo: some of rebacca, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The KSPP has also pledged to finally put an end to plans for the Myitsone Dam, a US$3.6 billion hydropower project proposed for the Irrawaddy River that was suspended in 2011 amid public opposition over its environmental and social impacts. The dam is backed by the China Power Investment Corporation and conflict over the project heralded a wave of disputes over foreign investments across the country—as of late 2019, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) included at least 38 projects.

Opposition to NLD leadership has grown in non-Burman ethnic areas in part because of top-down development plans imposed by the government in Naypyidaw. From the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State to the Mong Ton dam in Shan State, many projects in Myanmar’s ethnic minority areas have brought similar controversies over natural resource management and questions of who benefits from the investments.

“The current political system is a top-down approach,” Cheery Zahau of the CNLD told The Irrawaddy. “We are calling for a bottom-up approach because we understand our own problems better. It is not narrow-mindedness. It is called pragmatism.”

Photo: mohigan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ethnic parties face challenges in this week’s election

But despite ethnic voters’ disillusionment with the NLD, many ethnic political parties are struggling with a series of setbacks this year—from COVID-19 to a recent decision by election authorities to cancel voting in areas that have been affected by armed conflict in Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, Karen and Mon states and Bago Region. The cancellation impacts as many as 2 million people, or up to 5% of Myanmar’s eligible voters, in one-sixth of Myanmar’s 330 townships.

The move puts ethnic parties at a tremendous disadvantage: many voters will have no representative in parliament and no say in larger races, while some constituencies will see only a portion of residents allowed to vote. The move is in part a repeat of 2015, when many of the same constituencies were also unable to vote. The biggest changes are in Rakhine State, currently the site of the country’s most intense armed conflict but also the home of the largest ethnic party in parliament—the ANP.

For the ANP, the move represents a major blow as over 72% of voters in the state will be unable to cast votes, according to election authorities. Though the state has seen increasingly violent conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military, many observers and local leaders are skeptical of the move to cancel voting.

“Most townships in Rakhine state where elections will not be held are areas the ANP would definitely win, so this is a deliberate ploy,” ANP secretary Tun Aung Kyaw told the AFP.

“The government should, with trust, respect, broadmindedness and strong political will…negotiate with stakeholders including political parties in Rakhine State and work out a political framework in line with democratic norms that can satisfy the desires of ethnic people,” ANP candidate U Win Aung told The Irrawaddy.

Though ethnic parties may see few gains in this election, the NLD offers a chance at inclusive democratic reform—military politicians and the USDP, on the other hand, have doubled down on Burman nationalism. But without equitable representation for the country’s ethnic groups, Myanmar’s democratic transition will remain limited and stunted.

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