A veteran of Rakhine party politics heads into this year’s election on her own 

As a young girl from Ramree Island in southern Rakhine state, Htoot May walked three miles to school every day. In a region prone to heavy rainfall, this hour-long hike often left her drenched, but never dampened her determination to get an education.

“I had to walk to school without an umbrella during the monsoon season from the fourth to the ninth grade, and had to sit through classes in wet clothes. I had to dry my wet textbooks on a stove,” she recalls.

As a native of Myanmar’s second-poorest state, Htoot May is keenly aware of the needs of her people. Even today, many lack the electricity that she, too, had to live without as she studied by the dim light of kerosene lamps. 

Born into a poor farming family, she has never forgotten the hardships of her early life. Indeed, as she faces her first solo run for public office after a successful career in Rakhine party politics, she finds that recalling the past helps to stiffen her resolve in the face of new challenges.

“I have faced many political problems in 2020,” said Htoot May.

For most of her political life, Htoot May has been firmly behind whatever party she belonged to. But that changed earlier this year when circumstances forced her to make the difficult choice to run as an independent candidate in next month’s election.

The Arakan National Party (ANP), the party she stood for in Myanmar’s last election in 2015, split in 2017 over disagreements among top leaders. Then, two years later, the party decided that it wouldn’t accept resignations from members who wanted to join rival parties to run in this year’s election. That left only one option: a solo run as an independent.

Htoot May was among those who decided to take this route. She will be standing as an independent candidate for the position of Rakhine ethnic affair minister in Yangon region in the 2020 election. 

“I have faced many political problems in 2020. Although I was all for national unity, I was in a position where I was not allowed to freely share these political problems with the public. That’s why I decided to run as an independent candidate,” said the upper house MP who is now facing her first contest as a candidate without the backing of an established party.

The road from Ramree to the national political stage 

Htoot May’s journey to political prominence probably began in 1996, when her family moved from Rakhine state to Bahan township in Yangon. It was there that she discovered the struggles Rakhine people faced in the country were not merely material.

Htoot May speaks during an Arakan League for Democracy press conference in Yangon in 2017 (Kaung Myat Naing)

School was her first hurdle: As an ethnic Rakhine, she soon discovered that her lack of fluency in the Myanmar language was a real problem. But true to form, she persisted until she could more than hold her own in the country’s dominant language.

Despite her disadvantages, she and her family continued to make strides in their new home. After high school, she furthered her education through distance learning and worked at her family’s tailor and gold shops. 

As part of her ongoing effort to broaden her horizons, she also started studying English. She did this at the Schooler Institute, a language center founded by Rakhine youths in Yangon, and at Manawramma, a non-profit education center. She later volunteered as a teacher at both centers.

But even as she continued to widen her worldview, she turned her gaze back to the place that she considered home. In Myay Pone and Minbya townships in Rakhine, she taught English and politics to Rakhine youths. She also gave leadership training to women to promote women’s participation in politics.

It was her involvement in the 2007 Saffron Revolution that finally propelled her into national politics.

This experience heightened her awareness of the Rakhine’s people’s loss of equal rights and autonomy, which she says has fueled their desire for revolution and democracy. It also led her to a life of politics.

Her first political home was the Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), a party that enjoyed strong support in Rakhine state when it contested the 1990 election. The attraction for her, she said, was the party’s stance on equal rights and autonomy for Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and commitment to achieving a genuine federal union. By 2006, she was the leader of the ALD’s youth wing.

Meanwhile, she remained active in other groups whose policies she supported. She worked as a trainer for the women’s empowerment program at the Arakkha Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides assistance to disadvantaged students. She was also the president of the American Center’s Arakan Club and a coordinator for the Shwe Gas movement.

Then she started her own foundation to support her efforts to shape the future of Rakhine state through education. Among other things, the Htoot May Youth and Education Foundation has given scholarships to Rakhine youths who want to study abroad.

But it was her involvement in the 2007 Saffron Revolution that finally propelled her into national politics. She continued her work with the ALD, all the while striving to deepen her understanding of the social conditions of Rakhine state’s ethnic peoples. By the time Myanmar went to the polls again in 2015, she was ready to take the plunge and run for public office.

Htoot May, MP

Htoot May was a member of the ALD’s central executive committee when it decided to merge with the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) ahead of the 2015 election. And so it was under the banner of the newly formed ANP that she ran—and won—as a candidate for a seat in the national parliament representing Rakhine state. 

Htoot May addresses fellow MPs during a session of parliament in Naypyitaw (Htoot May’s Facebook)

Since then, she has established herself as one of the most active legislators in Naypyitaw. She often submits policy proposals and regularly asks questions about issues raised by her fellow MPs. She is also the secretary of the upper house committee on international relations and secretary of the joint committee on the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly. 

But her focus, as always, has been on ensuring that the Rakhine people get the support they need.

Her slogan: “To raise Rakhine’s image and increase Rakhine’s dignity.”

During a parliamentary session in May, she raised the issue of how the Rakhine ethnic affairs ministry’s budget was being used and asked whether there was a plan to set up a center for Rakhine youths in Yangon. A ministry official assured her that a Rakhine community center would soon be established. 

According to Htoot May, the center will help young people in Yangon’s Rakhine community improve their job prospects by offering them training to upgrade their skills, as well as legal advice on how to protect their rights in the workplace. It will also work for the development of township associations from the 17 townships in Rakhine state, she added.

Now, as a candidate to become Yangon’s Rakhine affairs minister, she hopes she will soon be in a position to focus evenly more closely on the needs of her people.

As an independent candidate, she has adopted the traditional Vesali open-oil lamp as the symbol of her Rakhine heritage. Her slogan: “To raise Rakhine’s image and increase Rakhine’s dignity.”

“I am prepared to do my best in Yangon with the experience I gained during my five-year term as a member of parliament, and I will spare no effort,” she said. 

A popular candidate and a savvy campaign

A total of six candidates—three from established parties and three independents—are in the running to become the Rakhine ethnic affairs minister in Yangon region. 

That means Htoot May will need all the support she can get. 

Luckily, she doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting endorsements from those familiar with her work.

Htoot May is seen at a youth and education seminar for students held in Taungup in January (Htoot May’s Facebook)

“She has taken administration and management studies, and her proposals in the parliament were very strong. She is a young, single woman, and unlike the other MPs, she does not come from a politically privileged background,” said Khaing Kaung San, the director of the Wan Lark Rural Development Foundation, a CSO that assists those displaced by conflict in Rakhine state.

But ultimately, it will be the support of voters that matters most.

According to the Yangon region election commission, more than 110, 000 eligible ethnic Rakhine voters had registered in the region as of October 6.

One of them is Zin Chay, a garment factory worker who is originally from Yepoke, a village in Rathedaung township. She said she believed Htoot May had the best interests of the Rakhine people at heart, and that she represents the whole Rakhine community. 

“We hid in bomb shelters. We had to pack our bags and run when the planes raided our village. I hate that life. I saw Htoot May speak in parliament on behalf of the displaced people, and I respect her,” she said.

Despite restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Htoot May has managed to maintain an active campaign by relying on technology to reach out to her would-be constituents. 

Once a week, she hosts “Htoot May’s Sunday Talk” as part of her online campaign activities. She also conducts virtual Q&A sessions with members of the ethnic Rakhine community, including entrepreneurs and ordinary voters.

When she isn’t pointing to her record on issues that matter to Rakhine people, she is hammering home a message about another subject that all voters care about: corruption. 

“It is very important for a politician not to pillage the public’s funds. A politician must not be corrupted,” she said. 

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