Kayah state gears up for post-election political manoeuvres

The National League for Democracy (NLD) has won another resounding victory nationwide, but in some parts of the country, its hold on power is not as secure as it was after 2015. 

Notably, in Kayah state, the ruling party will soon find itself forced to work together with a much smaller ethnic party in the state parliament. 

With nine of the state legislature’s 20 seats, the NLD is in a position to choose the chief minister of Myanmar’s smallest and least populous state, but not the speaker of its parliament. For that, it will have to negotiate with the Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP).

Like the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the KySDP picked up three seats in the state parliament in this year’s election. At least 11 votes are needed to choose the speaker and vice-speaker.

In theory, the USDP could control the legislature with the cooperation of the state’s five military-appointed MPs. To do that, however, it would also need the support of the KySDP.

“We spent a lot of time explaining that. This is one of the reasons we lost this election,” KySDP General Secretary Khu Theh Reh said of the party’s attendance at a meeting with the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief 

While this scenario is unlikely, it’s clear that that the ethnic Kayah party will not be a pushover as a junior partner, regardless of which major party it aligns itself with. 

There have been many tensions between the NLD and political activists in Kayah state. As the ruling party, the NLD has come under fire for its decision to erect a bronze statue of independence hero General Aung San in the centre of Loikaw, the state capital. The party’s image was further tarnished by a heavy-handed crackdown on protestors, which saw a number of leaders imprisoned for their opposition to what they saw as a symbol of Bamar nationalism.

Another source of resentment has been the government’s efforts to restrict the activities of civil society organizations. This has only served to strengthen the determination of local activists to win control over their own destiny by contesting elections. To this end, two ethnic Kayah parties joined forces to form the KySDP, which won a total of eight seats in last month’s election, including five at the Union level.

A disappointing finish

Despite its success, however, the party was less than thrilled with the outcome of the election. Khu Theh Reh, the general secretary of the KySDP, told Myanmar Now that the party had expected to win 70 percent of the 34 seats that were up for grabs in the state. It won just a third of that target.

According to Khu Theh Reh, one reason for the party’s poor performance was its decision to participate in a meeting that brought 34 political parties together with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, before the election. This gave rival parties a good opportunity to strike out, he said.

“We spent a lot of time explaining that. This is one of the reasons we lost this election,” he said of the decision to join the meeting. That decision, the party said in a statement released the day after the meeting, was made solely by the party’s chairman, and did not have the support of the KySDP as a whole.

“I don’t like it because it was not an honest contest,” said Thaung Htay, the NLD chair in Kayah state.

Meanwhile, efforts to turn close ties with other parties to their advantage also didn’t pan out as planned. The Kayan National Party (KNP), an ally of the KySDP, failed to pick up a single seat in the state. The NLD won in Demawso township, where the two allied parties made an all-out bid to win together. But even though they lost, they did manage to come out in second place in the vote count, ahead of the USDP.

KNP chair Khun B Htoo attributed this loss largely to what he saw as local people’s lack of understanding of the overall political situation, which made it difficult to explain the importance of federalism. However, he stopped short of blaming the electorate for his party’s failure to win any seats.

“We cannot say that the political knowledge among the public is low. They are in a position to accept the result because it was their decision. Compared to the 2015 election, we have improved a lot. The areas of strong public support have become clear,” he said.

A complicated state

Kayah state may be small in size, but it has a very varied political landscape. Even the ruling NLD, which once again demonstrated the breadth of its appeal by winning another landslide victory, did not win a single seat in three of the state’s seven townships.

In this case, the NLD did not hesitate in pointing a finger to explain its electoral disappointments. Thaung Htay, the NLD chair in Kayah state, accused the Karenni Army (the armed wing of the formerly exiled Karenni National Progressive Party, or KNPP) of using intimidation to prevent people voting NLD in Phruso township. He said that armed township-level KNPP officials ordered voters to cast their ballots for the KySDP.

“I don’t like it because it was not an honest contest,” he said.

Khu Theh Reh, the KySDP’s general secretary, rejected this accusation, however. “The KNPP supported us as an ethnic party striving to achieve self-government in the state. But we didn’t have a deal with them,” he said, noting that the KNPP backed the NLD in 2015.

He added that the KySDP won in Phruso and Shadaw townships because they’re not as ethnically diverse as other townships in the state. Most of their inhabitants, he said, are ethnic Kayah.

The KNPP—which signed a bilateral, state-level ceasefire agreement in 2012, but remains a non-signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement—made no secret of its preferences in the election. 

“At first glance, the letter sounds good, but there is no real substance,” KNP chair Khun B Htoo said of NLD calls to ethnic parties to join its efforts to create a federal union

Speaking to Myanmar Now about a month before the election, Shwe Myo, the KNPP’s secretary general, said that the group would support a state-based party that shared its goal of building a federal democratic union.

“We would consider supporting a national party for the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, but at the state level, we want a local party. This would be good not only for the state, but also for building a genuine federal union,” he said.

The third party

The military-backed USDP managed to win six seats in total in Kayah state, including three in the state parliament. One of the constituencies it won was Bawlakhe township, home to several military bases. Soe Thein, the former minister of the President’s Office, won here again, as he did when he ran as an independent in 2015. 

Sai Lin Lin Oo, the NLD candidate who lost in Bawlakhe, said there were indications that the USDP won for two main reasons: military votes and Soe Thein’s money, which he suggested was used to win the favour of local voters.

Maw Reh, a spokesperson for the USDP in Kayah state, rejected the idea that the party had guaranteed support from the military. He also denied charges that Soe Thein used his own money to buy votes.

Defying expectations, largely rural and underdeveloped Bawlakhe had the highest voter turnout in the state: According to the Union Election Commission, at least 84 percent of its eligible voters cast a ballot.

Former NLD member and Kayah state chief minister L Phaung Sho campaigning in October. (Photo: Kay Zun Nwai / Myanmar Now)

Now that the dust has settled from the election, another scramble is likely to begin, as the parties each position themselves to maximize their influence and push their respective agendas. 

Four days after the election, the NLD wrote a letter addressed to 48 ethnic parties, offering to work together with them to achieve a democratic federal union. So far, however, the response to the letter has been cautious.

“At first glance, the letter sounds good, but there is no real substance,” said KNP chair Khun B Htoo. Whether the NLD and ethnic parties can succeed in becoming allies after the 2020 election will depend on the ruling party’s actions, he added.

The KySDP’s Khu Theh Reh said that his party would first try to take effective action in the state parliament on its own. Joining the cabinet would be a lower priority, he said. 

He added that the KySDP wants to negotiate with the NLD to choose the speaker or vice-speaker of the state parliament. Having one party in control of the government and another in charge of parliament would be the best way to ensure that effective checks and balances are in place, he said.   

“Our policy is to integrate with the democratic forces. But it is too early to tell. If we can’t avoid joining a group, the only choice is the NLD,” said Khu Theh Reh.

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