Could this year’s election pave the way to a new federal model in Shan state?

Myanmar was mostly a sea of red in the wake of its latest election, with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) winning far more seats in the Union parliament than any other party. A notable exception, however, was Shan state, which remained a multicolored patchwork of political parties. 

As in the past, ethnic parties captured a sizable share of the vote in the state. But that has never translated into real power, however, as the state’s government after the 2010 and 2015 elections was overwhelmingly green, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) dominating all executive positions. The question, then, is whether the situation will be any different this time around.

There is good reason to think it might be. While ethnic parties’ share of the vote barely budged in this year’s election, there was a notable shift away from support for the USDP in favor of the NLD—a party that is more open to working together with smaller parties not only in parliament, but also in forming a government.

If the NLD did move in that direction, it would go a long way toward improving the state’s prospects for economic development and regional stability, which are the two main aspirations of its people. As the party speaks openly of forming a “national unity government,” many in Shan state now see hope for real change.

It remains to be seen, however, if the party will follow through on its promises of greater cooperation and inclusivity. While it clearly sees some advantage in joining forces with ethnic parties, it remains non-committal about the details.

“The [NLD] central executive committee will consider the [election] outcome. It would be better for Shan state if the NLD and ethnic parties could work together more closely than they did in 2015,” Zaw Min Latt, the chairman of the party’s Shan state executive committee, told Myanmar Now.

The difference an election makes

Voting took place in 49 of Shan state’s 55 townships during the 2020 election. (Four of the six that were not included were in the Wa Self-Administered Division, while the other two were Mongla and Mong Kung.) These townships accounted for a total of 61 seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, or Union parliament: 49 in the Pyithu Hluttaw, or lower house, and 12 in the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house. Voters also sent a total of 105 representatives to the Shan state parliament, including 98 MPs and seven ethnic affairs ministers (who are elected directly in their respective constituencies).

In 2015, by contrast, Shan state had only 60 seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and 103 in the state parliament, due to fighting in Kyethi and Mong Hsu townships.

Comparing the results of the two elections, it can generally be seen that the USDP lost seats not only in the state parliament, but also in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw. At the state level, it went from 33 seats five years ago to just 25 this year, while at the Union level, it won just 16 seats this year, down from 19 in the last election.

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), the largest ethnic party in Shan state, was widely expected to see the biggest gains in this year’s election, but only managed to hold on to the 15 seats it already had in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, and increased its share of seats in the state parliament by just two, to 26. 

Smaller ethnic parties also remained mostly unchanged.  The Ta’ang (Palaung) National Party (TNP) won five seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and seven in the state parliament—the same as in 2015. It won one new seat in the Amyotha Hluttaw, but lost another to the Pa-O National Organization (PNO), which came away with three seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and seven in the state parliament (up by one from 2015).  

The Wa National Party (WNP), formed earlier this year through a coalition of two other ethnic Wa parties, won the Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Hopang township, which it will also represent in the state parliament, along with Mong Ton township. The Lahu National Development Party lost one of the two state parliament seats it won 2015, while the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party held on to its single seat in Mongpan township. The Kokang Democracy and Unity Party, which won a state parliament seat in 2015, came away empty-handed. 

The upshot, then, is that the NLD was the big winner this year in Shan state, picking up three more seats in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and six more in the state parliament, giving it a total of 18 in the former and 29 in the latter. The USDP is still the strongest party in the state at the Union level, but behind the NLD at the state level. In both cases, however, the NLD has weakened the USDP’s dominance and put itself in a better position to forge new alliances in Myanmar’s most ethnically and politically diverse state.   

Of the small parties currently in power, the PNO and the WNP are the least likely to partner with the NLD. Both are closely associated with the USDP, as evidenced by the fact that they were among 34 parties that took part in a meeting with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, in August.

SNLD candidates are joined by supporters during a campaign trip to Tachileik in eastern Shan state on October 20. (SNLD)

Other parties, however, would likely be receptive to overtures from the ruling party. Maing Aung Min, a member of the TNP’s central executive committee, said he hoped the NLD would give ethnic parties a chance to serve in the state government. He noted that the USDP chose both the speaker and deputy speaker from within its own ranks during the last two administrations. It would be better, he said, if the NLD made such decisions based on qualifications rather than party affiliation.

Zaw Min Latt, the NLD’s Shan state executive committee chairman, said that even though the party won the general election in 2015, it didn’t have a free hand in selecting members of the Shan state government because the USDP won the most seats at the Union and state levels. This is why three of the state’s 10 ministerial posts (not including the seven ethnic affairs ministers) are currently held by USDP candidates: Minister for Social Affairs Dr Myo Tun, Minister of Roads and Communications Khun Ye Htwe, and Minister of Agriculture and Livestock Sai Long Kyaw.

“One can think about how to implement Shan politics based on the results of this election,” Zaw Min Latt said ahead of the polls. Now that the NLD has more seats in the state parliament than the USDP, the time may be right to bring other parties into the fold.

Moves toward a new federal model?

According to Article 161(d) of the 2008 Constitution, the number of armed forces personnel appointed by the commander-in-chief to the parliament of each state and region must be one-third of the total number of elected MPs. In 2015, when 103 MPs were elected to the Shan state parliament, there were 34 military representatives. Together with the 33 USDP representatives elected that year, they formed a bloc that comprised nearly half of the state parliament. This gave them effective control over who would serve as the speaker and deputy speakers and other important parliamentary decisions.

This year, that same bloc is significantly diminished: Between them, the military representatives and the USDP MPs (most of whom are former military officials) occupy 60 seats in the state parliament, or less that 43 percent of the total. However, with the support of the PNO and the WNP, the military and its proxy party would still have the upper hand in the 140-seat state parliament.

The only way for the NLD to shift the balance of power in Shan state would be by forming an alliance with the SNLD and other ethnic parties—a move that would be in line with its professed desire to focus on the aspirations of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, as expressed in the open letter it sent to 48 ethnic parties on November 12, four days after this year’s election. 

In this letter on “Union issues for the future of Myanmar,” the NLD said it hoped that ethnic parties would play an active part in its efforts to bring about a democratic federal union in the country. It was, as the NLD’s spokesperson, Dr Myo Nyunt, told Myanmar Now, “the first step towards national unity.”

So far, however, these steps have been tentative at best. In Shan state, the NLD’s most natural partner would be the SNLD. Both parties are products of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and both shared a similar fate in the wake of the 1990 election, facing decades of persecution after performing strongly in the polls. More importantly, in terms of the current situation, it has 26 seats in the state parliament, placing it second only to the NLD and one seat ahead of the USDP.  

The main obstacle, at this point, is the NLD’s reputation for standoffishness towards other parties, including those with whom it shares many of the same goals. This would not be the first time that the NLD has spoken of forming a “national unity government,” and the SNLD is understandably reluctant to assume that it really means it this time. 

“It depends a lot on the NLD. It’s still too early to tell,” said SNLD spokesperson Sai Lek when asked by Myanmar Now about the NLD’s efforts to reach out to ethnic parties. 

The SNLD’s senior leadership was similarly reticent. “We haven’t discussed anything yet, so I don’t want to say too much about it,” said Sai Kyaw Nyunt, the party’s joint secretary (1).

The NLD appears to be casting a wide net in an effort to be more inclusive. Maung Maung Sein, the secretary of the party’s Shan state executive committee, said that the NLD needs to cooperate not only with the SNLD, but also with smaller ethnic parties. In this way, he said, the democratic forces in parliament would become stronger.

Residents in Ei Nie, a village in Lashio township, wait in a queue at a polling station on November 8. (Myat Moe Thu/Myanmar Now) 

Even if the NLD does keep its promise this time, not everyone is convinced that it will make a difference. Maing Win Htoo, a TNP candidate who won a seat in the state parliament representing Namsan Township in the Palaung Autonomous Region, said he doubted that an NLD-led coalition would significantly change the state’s political landscape as long as Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution exists in its current state.

“No matter which party wins or loses, we see no real chance of reform in Myanmar in the present situation,” he said, adding that regional stability and an end to conflict are more important priorities for local people and politicians alike. 

Some, however, see power-sharing as the best way to achieve both peace and political reform. According to political analyst Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Myanmar’s states and regions have far less power to govern than their counterparts in most genuine federal unions. By working together with ethnic parties, the NLD could expand the role of state governments and lay the groundwork for a new model of federalism that comes closer to international norms—and to meeting the demands of the country’s ethnic minorities.

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