Parties mark the start of Myanmar’s pandemic-era election with subdued campaign events

Official campaigning for Myanmar’s November 8 election kicked off on Tuesday amid a dramatic spike in Covid-19 cases that has hampered parties’ campaign plans. 

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was forced to cancel a trip scheduled for Tuesday to her constituency of Kawhmu, in Yangon region, as the total number of cases in Myanmar hit 1,610.

Instead, she attended a socially distanced ceremony at the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) temporary headquarters in Naypyitaw. 

Clad in gloves, a face mask and a see-through face shield, she raised the NLD’s peacock-adorned flag to mark the start of the party’s bid for re-election.

“I want to request that our people vote for the NLD on November 8, so that this flag of victory can fly for a long time yet above the land of our Union of Myanmar,” she said at the ceremony. 

The NLD, which will field 1,143 candidates nationwide, is by far the favourite to win in November, even if five years in office have dented enthusiasm for Suu Kyi and her once-persecuted party. 

The Union Election Commission has warned that parties must follow health ministry guidelines while campaigning. Rallies with more than 50 people are banned and attendees must stand at least six feet away from each other, according to the guidelines.    

Campaign events in areas that are under full or partial lockdown because of a spike in local cases are banned entirely, the ministry said. 

Lockdowns in Rakhine state, along with fierce fighting between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, mean that campaigning there has yet to start. 

Candidates in some constituencies, including those where access to 3G internet has been cut off, fear it will remain all but impossible to campaign before polling day.  

Among Myanmar’s total cases, 565 were recorded in Rakhine, most within the last few weeks. Yangon, where partial lockdowns are underway in some townships, has recorded 700 cases. 

USDP party members give out masks to people in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Yangon (Aye Chan Khaing/Myanmar Now)

There will be 6,689 candidates from 92 parties vying for seats in November, plus 280 independent candidates. Amid the restrictions, Myanmar’s opposition parties kicked off campaigning with low key events across the country, while some candidates stayed home entirely.  

Than Htay, chair of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is running for a seat in Zeyar Thiri township in Naypyitaw. But the party’s office there was quiet when Myanmar Now visited on Tuesday. The party is standing over 1,100 candidates. 

Elsewhere in Naypyitaw, Thura Shwe Mann, a former across-the-aisle ally of Suu Kyi, launched his new party’s campaign by unveiling a sign board before a small group of yellow-clad supporters at its headquarters. 

The Union Betterment Party (UBP) is fielding 927 candidates, making it the third largest contender behind the military-backed USDP.

“We need to elect a better government in 2020, for the people,” Shwe Mann told an online press conference on Tuesday. “Please choose the UBP, which will truly act on what it says.”

Candidates from the People’s Party walk through Kamayut township holding banners and campaign signboards (Sai Zaw/Myanmar Now) 

The People’s Party, founded by veteran 1988 activist Ko Ko Gyi, will compete with 152 candidates, some of whom marked the start of election season by walking through Yangon holding banners. 

And there will be 248 candidates fighting for the People’s Pioneer Party, founded by Thet Thet Khine, a former NLD MP and Suu Kyi ally who was expelled for criticising the party.

Thet Thet Khine launches the People’s Pioneer Party’s election bid in Mayangone township, Yangon (Arkar Soe/Myanmar Now)

Thet Thet Khine said she chose to run for a seat in Yangon’s Mayangone township, even though she expects competition from the NLD incumbent to be stiff, because she wanted to inspire the party’s membership. 

“Instead of choosing an easy place to win, I want my members to be inspired,” she told reporters at a campaign launch in Mayangone on Tuesday morning.  

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy party also had a subdued start to the campaign season, unveiling party sign boards in a handful of townships across Shan state. 

Some opposition parties, including the USDP and the People’s Party, have suggested the election could be postponed amid a sharp rise in cases.

One of the SNLD’s sign boards seen at an opening ceremony at the party’s Muse branch office (Myat Moe Thu/Myanmar Now)

Ko Ko Gyi said the poll should be held in December instead. “The election can be postponed until any time before the last day of the current parliament’s five year term,” he said. “I’m not saying this for our party’s own benefit at all, but for the security and health of our people.”

He added: “We need to seriously consider the possibility that candidates or volunteers at polling stations could get infected… [and] election processes get halted.” 

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