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Politics

Country heads to historic poll amid kaleidoscopic politics

A crowd gathers near Yangon’s Thuwanna Pagoda for the final USDP election campaign rally on Nov. 6 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

YANGON -- Voters throughout Myanmar prepared to head to the country's historic nationwide election on Sunday with images of the final week's campaigning still fresh in their minds. On Saturday, throughout major towns and cities, the noise of party trucks blaring jingles and loudspeakers touting voter education fell silent due to a campaigning ban that took effect the night before.

     The popular mood, as conveyed by the last big party rallies and press events, appears to favor change.

     Speaking to an estimated 100,000 red-clad supporters gathered in a field beside Yangon's Thuwanna Pagoda on Nov. 1, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared ebullient, exhorting the cheering crowd to ditch the current military-backed government.

     "I want to tell you again to vote for us if you want to see real changes in the country," Suu Kyi said, her call drawing rapturous acclaim from the crowd.

     On Friday, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, dominated by former military men and civil servants, gathered at best 10,000 supporters in the same field, where a mix of crooners and pop acts tried to rev up the crowd up ahead of a keynote speech by Nanda Kyaw Swa, a member of the USDP's central committee.

     Not content with telling the crowd that the USDP is supremely confident of holding on to power, Nanda Kyaw Swa added some extra bravado: "Let me tell you in advance that we have won."

     There are 91 parties and more than 6,000 candidates contesting the election, but the USDP is the main rival to Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

     Back in 2010, international and domestic critics accused the USDP and the ruling military of manipulating the country's election results. This time, perhaps in an effort to allay fears of similar ballot-stuffing conspiracies that might give the USDP an unlikely and possibly destabilizing win, President Thein Sein gave a televised speech hours after the USDP rally, assuring citizens that the election would be "free and fair."

     "I'd like to say again that the government and the military will respect and accept the results," the president said, speaking after the official close of campaigning. "I will accept the new government formed, based on the election result."

     Earlier the same day, several attendees at the USDP rally told the Nikkei Asian Review that they would vote for the NLD -- despite their appearance, clad in USDP T-shirts and face-paint in the party's green and white colors. They dutifully cheered wildly, right on cue, as USDP speakers took the stage.

     Though several million would-be voters have been disenfranchised, the election is being labeled the first free and fair election in Myanmar since 1990.

     That year the NLD, led by Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar's late independence hero, Gen. Aung San, won a landslide victory only to be denied office by the long-ruling military.

     Suu Kyi's mantra is one of change, tempered by formidable determination that if the NLD wins, she will be the power behind the throne. Her statement on Thursday that she would be "above the president" directing her chosen candidate -- should the NLD win a clear majority -- seemed aimed at circumventing a constitutional ban on her becoming president.

     The USDP appears riven by a power struggle between those close to Thein Sein and supporters of parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann, who was ousted as acting chairman of the ruling party in mid-August. Through it all, the party has been pitching its economic reforms, which have drawn a surge of foreign investment, more than $8 billion in 2014, record tourist arrivals and economic growth averaging 7% a year.

     Shwe Mann, estranged from the party leadership, has publicized his views that the USDP will struggle to win. Meanwhile, the party's top brass appears rattled by the NLD bandwagon. Even so, Shwe Mann seemed confident in the final week of campaigning in his hometown of Phyu, in the Bago region north of Yangon, urging people to "work together and cooperate." Earlier he had alluded to a possible alliance he might forge with Suu Kyi, who is known to have developed a close relationship with the speaker.

Scare tactics

The evident anxiety within the USDP has led to some negative campaigning. In an uncharacteristically blunt stump speech, Thein Sein, who is barred from campaigning under Myanmar's constitution, asked voters in his hometown of Ngapudaw, in the Ayerwaddy delta southwest of Yangon: "What more change do you want? If you want more, go for communism. Nobody wants communism, do they?"

     It is highly unlikely that many Myanmar voters would view the NLD as communist. But the party has struggled to shake off long-standing accusations that despite its resolute defiance of military rule, it is light on policy. The NLD, did, however draw up a pre-election economic policy document earlier this year that includes proposed investment-drawing initiatives, as reported in the NAR.

     Those in Myanmar's vital tourism sector, which has seen a sharp rise in visitors since 2011, and its garment industry, which has seen new factory openings soar, are keenly anticipating the outcome.

     S.B Chetry, a long-established tourism operator in Yangon, said businesses had dealt with a lot of cancellations in the lead up to elections, but he is optimistic that "a smooth transition" will see the sector "booming again like in 2012" -- a heady year for Myanmar as foreign visitors began to return in droves after years of autarky and Western sanctions.

     Myint Soe, chairman of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, which represents 350 factories employing more than 230,000 workers, predicted that the election outcome would not make any difference to the sector, despite its history of strikes and wage disputes.

     "The election is the election. Our industry is moving forward," Myint Soe told the NAR. "Up to now there have been no problems."

     The same cannot be said for hundreds of villages where voting has been cancelled due to ongoing fighting between the Myanmar army and ethnic minority militias -- clashes that have continued despite the mid-October signing of a national ceasefire deal between the government and eight of 16 or so ethnic armed groups that negotiated with the government. Among those that refused to sign the agreement were the powerful United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA. Several other groups remained outside the process, although government negotiators insist the "door remains open."

Ethnic perspectives

Myanmar's estimated population of 51.4 million encompasses the majority Bama, or Myanma, and an array of ethnic groups that make up an estimated 40% of the population. Some analysts suggest 80% of the population is Buddhist, although official data on ethnicity and religion from a 2014 census are being withheld until after the vote.

     In Mytikyina, the capital of heavily Christian Kachin state, campaigning has been notably more subdued than in big cities in the ethnic Bama heartland, such as Yangon and Mandalay.

     In Kachin, refugees from four years of renewed conflict between the KIA and the Myanmar army spoke of their hopes for peace -- and of a return home after the elections.

     At the Zi Un camp for internally displaced people near Myitkyina, Ting Nam, 54, a Kachin woman who fled her home in Waingmaw in late 2011, spoke to the NAR. "Some people say the election can really change things," she said. "I'm hoping that after, I can return home and that the military forces will go back." The NLD is hoping to win seats in ethnic minority strongholds such as Kachin state, but has faced accusations of being aloof from ethnic minority concerns.

     The perception of NLD indifference could see votes go to any among the alphabet soup of identity-based parties in regions closer to Myanmar's borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. "We can't believe Aung San Suu Kyi -- she is from a different ethnicity. I believe Kachin parties more than the others," said Ting Nam.

     In Shan state, an eastern region roughly the size of Nepal, would-be voters spoke of their support for the NLD -- suggesting that the party's nationwide campaigning had paid off, even in a region with two powerful, ethnic Shan-based parties.

     Indications of a late surge in support for the NLD suggests a significant change from early September, when most ethnic Shan voters in the capital, Taunggyi, said they would opt for one of the competing Shan parties.

     As campaigning closed on Friday, Yan Pain, 18, sought time off work so he could travel to his village to vote. "I asked [my boss] and he said 'yes, just go;' I am not educated and I want that to change. That's why I am voting for the NLD," Yan Pain said.

Disenfranchised population

Overall, an estimated 4 million people will be unable to vote on Nov. 8 due to a number of reasons including suspension of elections because of conflict; incomplete voter list implementation by the national election commission; a lack of voter information for migrant workers living abroad, or, most significantly, being barred because they are denied citizenship.

     Of the disenfranchised, no group's plight has loomed larger than that of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority numbering roughly 1 million who mostly live in Myanmar's western Rakhine state.

     They were entitled to vote -- and even in a few cases compete for seats -- in the flawed 2010 election. But this time, with sectarian tensions rising, most Rohingya have been barred from voting -- an irony that emerges in part from the government's political liberalization, which has facilitated an upsurge in Buddhist extremist rhetoric and anti-Muslim sentiment.

     The Rohingya-led Democratic and Human Rights Party is running three candidates, but estimates that out of more than 6,000 contestants across the country, no more than 20 are Muslim, despite estimates that Muslims account for 8% to 12% of the population.

     "They said our parents were not citizens of this country when we were born," said Myo Thant, information secretary at the DHRP, describing the election commission's refusal to allow 15 would-be DHRP candidates to contest the election.

     Extremist monks have pushed legislation discriminating against Muslims and have thrown their weight behind the USDP, while portraying the NLD as Muslim sympathizers and forcing Suu Kyi to back away from her references to the "unconstitutional use of religion for political ends."

     Even so, painting Suu Kyi as a foreign-aligned proto-Islamist will no doubt steer some voters away from the NLD. In Rakhine state the local Arakan ethnic party -- notorious for anti-Muslim rhetoric -- is expected to win big. Elsewhere in rural areas the USDP's financial clout and pre-election spending binge could double down on religious nationalism and a partisan, allegedly incompetent election commission.

     Soe Than, a medical doctor and an NLD candidate for the Mandalay regional parliament for Chanayethazan township, said he expects the party to sweep to victory in Mandalay's urban seats.

     But he said problems with voter lists could hurt the NLD in rural townships, where the financial sway of the USDP would narrow the margins. "These list problems are their weapons," Soe Than told the NAR.

     At the final USDP campaign rally in Yangon on Nov. 6, one USDP die-hard who would not give his name said he would never vote for the NLD, which he described as "working for the foreigner."

     The previous Sunday, however, the thunderous reception for Suu Kyi suggested that even if the USDP and hardline monks persuade some voters that the NLD is not sufficiently nationalistic, Suu Kyi herself has the esteem of enough Myanmar voters to draw many votes to her party.

     Whether that will give enough seats to the NLD to overcome the combined parliamentary vote of the USDP and the military, which holds 25% of all seats, will determine the decisive vote for the presidency early next year.

     Sie Thu, a shop owner living in the same pagoda-crowded neighborhood where Aung San Suu Kyi held her Nov. 1 Yangon rally espoused USDP style confidence in an opposition triumph.

     "Of course the NLD will win, look at this big crowd," Sie Thu said. "She is our leader, she is our mother," he continued, pointing reverentially toward Suu Kyi.

     But in some of the USDP's rural heartlands including the rice-growing Ayerwaddy delta area just 120km west of Yangon, residents have turned out in droves to attend rallies held by USDP candidates. The ruling party candidates here include some big guns from Thein Sein's cabinet, including former Immigration and Population Minister Khin Yi and USDP joint chairman U Htay Oo.

     In Hinthada, a township of about 250,000 in Ayerwaddy, Htay Oo expressed confidence about his campaign for reelection to parliament's lower house, telling the NAR, "I'm known here, I've helped the people here for years. But even now, some people think the NLD is General Aung San's party. I have to explain that it is not."

     In the 2010 poll, he won a crushing 80% of the votes. But this time could be different. As the mild-mannered NLD candidate Khin Maung Yi, a 71-year-old retired school teacher noted, "I think we can win, but my concern is that the vote will be free and fair."

Reported by Asia regional correspondent Simon Roughneen, Chief editor Gwen Robinson and contributing writers Joe Freeman in Yangon, Sebastian Strangio in Mandalay, Fiona MacGregor in Taunggyi and Hpa'an, and Simon Lewis in Pyin Oo Lwin.

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