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Politics

Chasing the ethnic vote

Ethnic Karenni women in traditional dress: Minorities account for about 30-35% of Myanmar's population. (Photo by Steve Tickner)

TAUNGGYI, Myanmar -- For parliamentary hopeful Sai Lynn Myat, Myanmar's Nov. 8 legislative elections could lead to some lively banter around the family dinner table.

     His father-in-law, Kyaw Khin, is a central executive committee member of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, while Sai Lynn Myat is running for the rival Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.

     Ironically, his SNLD office is just off the main street of Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. The thoroughfare is named after Gen. Aung San, a Myanmar independence hero and father of Suu Kyi. The street in the breezy hill town, 1,436 meters above sea level, bustles with hawkers peddling fried snacks in front of new mobile phone shops and colorful boutiques selling traditional garb.

     Sai Lynn Myat is one of 158 candidates running on the SNLD ticket. He is chasing a seat in Shan for the lower house of Myanmar's national parliament. Shan is the biggest of the seven ethnic minority states that line Myanmar's borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand.

     About 30-35% of Myanmar's 51 million-plus population belongs to the country's dozens of ethnic minority groups. The 2014 census, the first in 31 years, should show how many Shan and other minorities there are, but the government is withholding the data until after the elections.

     "I guess we [Shan] are about 8% of the total," Sai Lynn Myat said. 

     In the years after 1948, when Myanmar won its independence from Great Britain, some in the army thought Shan, a northeastern region that is slightly larger than Nepal and covers nearly a quarter of Myanmar, would try to secede. That perception served as justification for a coup by Gen. Ne Win, which marked the onset of five decades of harsh and secretive military rule.

     Claiming the military regime would not allow a free and fair vote, both the NLD and SNLD boycotted the last national elections in 2010, just four months before the army formally handed the reins of government to a nominally civilian administration. Two decades earlier, after the 1990 elections, the NLD had seen its sweeping victory annulled by the then-junta.

     Although the two parties have long shared a common enemy -- the ruling generals -- they will now compete against each other in Shan, a region home to warlords and drug traffickers who have carved out ministates.

Splitting the vote?

Many expect the NLD to win a majority of the combined 664 seats in the upper and lower houses of the national parliament. But before the party decided to compete in areas dominated by ethnic minority groups, the speculation was that it would allow like-minded parties representing minorities, such as the SNLD, to take the fight to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

     "The main worry is how the NLD contesting the elections in the ethnic states will affect ethnic parties, and how much this will lead to the splitting of the ethnic vote," noted "Myanmar's Ethnic Parties and the 2015 Elections," a multiauthor survey of 36 ethnic parties published in April.

     According to another survey, released in August and conducted by the Yangon School of Political Science and the Taiwan-based polling organization Asian Barometer, about 17% of voters in ethnic minority regions would opt for the NLD.

     Ethnic parties will target gains against the USDP, and against USDP-linked ethnic minority parties such as the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, which won 21 seats in the 2010 elections.

     "They are in line with the government party," said Sai Lynn Myat, playing down the SNDP's likelihood of success. Several SNDP members defected to Sai Lynn Myat's SNLD ahead of the campaign period.

     But this dynamic of multiple parties representing ethnic minorities -- some linked to the USDP, some to the NLD, others unaffiliated to either -- could result in a division of ethnic votes that would ultimately weaken the voices of minorities in any government.

     Only in Rakhine State have the dominant local ethnic parties amalgamated. In Chin State, a sparsely populated region in the northwest that is home to the mostly Christian Chin, efforts to forge a common election platform have so far proved elusive.

     "Recently, Chin parties held a conference to cooperate, but there seems to be a struggle to get any sort of coalition among the parties," said Mai Thin Yu Mon, program officer at the Chin Human Rights Organization.

     For hundreds of thousands of civilians in ethnic minority regions, there are more pressing and practical concerns after swaths of Myanmar were deluged by monsoon flooding in recent weeks. One of the worst-hit regions was Chin, where an estimated 3,000 houses were submerged and roads were left impassable.

     With tens of thousands of people needing assistance after the disaster, there are fears that electioneering will impinge on the relief effort. "We worry that there will be exploitation of aid coming in, to try to get votes," Mai Thin Yu Mon said.

     Back in Taunggyi, there were few signs of election fever. Day-to-day concerns were foremost in voters' minds.

     Geology student Sai Khun Noot, 20, and about 15 classmates from Taunggyi University were busy rehearsing a traditional Shan dance for a concert. During a break, the aspiring troupe gossiped in small groups or concentrated on smartphones, fingers dancing across screens.

     "I am not following the story of the election, or the big politics," Sai Khun Noot said. "But I will vote for a Shan party, for our Shan people."

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