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Aung San Suu Kyi reaches out to ethnic minorities in election year

Myanmar leader aims to shore up ruling party's majority despite lack of peace

Aung San Suu Kyi has already started campaigning in minority areas where support for her ruling NLD party has waned.    © AFP/ Jiji

YANGON -- Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has hit the provincial campaign trail well ahead of November's general election, looking to ensure her party remains the largest in parliament despite her government's failure to deliver on many promises to ethnic minorities -- particularly peace settlements.

Her governing National League for Democracy, which marked its fourth anniversary in power on March 30, is expected to lose some seats in the legislature to regional parties -- but not its majority.

At a March 11 rally in the eastern state of Shan -- typical of Myanmar's ethnically diverse fabric -- Suu Kyi said the country's strength is rooted in its diversity and asked for patience on reaping the fruits of democracy. She acknowledged Myanmar had been "left behind" in Southeast Asia but stressed, "We do have a lot of time to move forward, and we get ourselves motivated to improve and develop our country."

Overall, the state counsellor visited nearly a dozen provincial cities from January to mid-March, more than 70% of them with dominant minority populations.

Elections will be held for both the upper and lower houses of the legislature with a total of 664 seats, 25% of which are reserved for the military and appointed by the commander in chief of the defense services. The other 498 seats are contested as single constituencies. The NLD must win two-thirds of the constituencies for a 333-seat majority.

In the 2015 general election, the NLD won 390 seats, and completely overwhelmed the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party backed by the military.

Suu Kyi remains popular mainly among the Bamar people in the central area, who make up about 70% of the population of 55 million. She is less in favor with the 30% in outlying minority areas.

Suu Kyi enjoyed widespread domestic approval when she defended Myanmar against genocide allegations at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December.    © Reuters

Officially, Myanmar has eight main ethnic groups, including the Bamar (previously known in English as Burmans). The others include the Kachin in the north, the Karen and Mon in the east along the border with Thailand, with the Shan further north stretching up to China. The Rakhine people live in the west along the Indian Ocean coast. The Rohingya, a minority Muslim group the government claims to be illegal immigrants from Bengal, are not included among them.

Ethnic armed groups have been in conflict with the national armed forces since soon after World War II, fruitlessly pursuing military and political autonomy and guarantees for their economic interests. At the last election, the NLD made nationwide peace its main policy plank, raising hopes that the predations of Myanmar's armed forces would finally cease.

However, the conflicts have not only persisted but worsened in some areas, opening the NLD government up to much dissatisfaction. "I supported the NLD last time because I didn't want the military-backed party to win, but they have not fulfilled their campaign pledge," a Kachin restaurateur in northern Myanmar told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Taking a cue from her father, Gen. Aung San, the nation's pre-independence hero and army founder, Suu Kyi established the 21st Century Panglong Conference. Her father's Panglong Conference in February 1947, not long before his assassination, brought together some ethnic minorities in the prelude to independence from Britain. Suu Kyi's version was conceived as a forum for insurgent groups and the national armed forces to make peace with her government serving as mediator, but the initiative failed to bring the warring parties any closer. The conference was last convened in 2018.

Meanwhile, ethnic political parties have built on rising minority discontent with the NLD, and in some cases consolidated their efforts. For example, the Kachin at the last election were split into four main parties, which divided the vote and ended up winning them only a solitary seat. This time, three of those parties have merged into the Kachin State People's Party. "We can surely win in the constituencies where the Kachin people are the majority," a party executive told Nikkei. He believes that could affect the result in 40% of the state's constituencies.

The NLD has, however, taken another run at minority and peace issues with the formation of a dedicated internal committee to vet its candidates in constituencies at risk.

The NLD also submitted a constitutional amendment bill in January with an eye to the impending election. It proposed a staged reduction in the number of military lawmakers. But constitutional amendments require the assent of 75% of the members of both houses, which ensures an effective military veto. After a two-week debate, most of the amendments were predictably voted down, except some minor wording amendments.

Despite this failure, an NLD insider told Nikkei that the legal maneuver demonstrated how the NLD is still better placed than small ethnic parties to "counter the armed forces."

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