Tiny Khumi party fights uphill battle to claim a place in Paletwa’s political landscape

Paletwa township in southern Chin state is one of the most inaccessible regions in all of Myanmar. Remote and underdeveloped, it is also a battleground in the fierce conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw. But like the rest of the country, it will soon witness another struggle for power: the November 8 election.

With around 30,000 eligible voters, two seats in the Chin state parliament, another two in the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house of the Union parliament, and one more in the Pyithu Hluttaw, or lower house, Paletwa is not an especially big prize for any of Myanmar’s major political parties. But for one party, winning any of these seats would count as an unprecedented victory.

The Khumi National Party (KNP), with just 3,000 members at the time of its registration for this year’s election, is up against some very stiff competition in Paletwa. Besides the big two—the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—the party will also have to go head to head with the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD), the thousand-candidate-strong United Democratic Party (UDP), and the Ethnic National Development Party (ENDP), based in Matupi.

Founded in 2014 by a 16-member executive committee, the KNP is the sole ethno-regional party in Paletwa. Its chair, Luth Kyaw Htun, won the Pyithu Hluttaw seat for Paletwa township in the 1990 election as an NLD candidate. In the 2010 election, he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the National Democratic Force (NDF). In 2015, he lost again, this time representing the KNP.

Khumi National Party chair Luth Kyaw Htun in 2015 (KMG)

This year, the party will field candidates in three contests: constituencies 7 and 8 in the Amyotha Hluttaw and constituency 2 in the state parliament. Luth Kyaw Htun will be contesting in constituency 8, while Luth Kan Lin will be the party’s candidate in constituency 7 and Luth Aung Ba will make a bid for the state parliament seat.

At present, however, only the party chair is in Paletwa, even though the official campaign period has already begun. The other two candidates, Luth Aung Ba and Luth Kan Lin, have been kept away from the region they hope to represent by transport difficulties and the ongoing conflict.

Khumi leaders freely governed their respective areas of Paletwa for centuries. When the British invaded the region, they fought them off with any weapon they could lay their hands on. However, when they no longer had the numbers to put up much of a resistance, they became the first tribe in the Chin Hills to sign a peace treaty with the foreign power that came to rule over the entire country.

Under the British, Paletwa was administered as the Arakan Hill District. Currently, it is a township in Chin state’s Matupi district.

According to the General Administration Department’s figures for 2019, Paletwa has a population of more than 100,000 people, of whom about 90,000 are of Khumi descent. Ethnic Rakhine are the second-largest group, and there are also a number of other, smaller ethnic groups.

Reaching KNP chair Kyaw Htun for comment is no easy matter, in part because Paletwa is so difficult to access. The 75-year-old leader could not be contacted by phone because his hearing aid was not working properly. Family members told Myanmar Now that a replacement had been ordered, but hadn’t arrived yet because the 135-mile dirt road connecting Paletwa to Matupi was closed, as it often is.

Poor road conditions mean that there is no bus service between Paletwa and Matupi during the monsoon season. Private bikes or cars can be rented for emergencies, but tend to be expensive. Erosion routinely washes out sections of the road, and it’s not uncommon for vehicles to get stuck in the mud. Even when the weather is fine, the road can be closed for weeks due to fighting between Sami town and Paletwa.

There is another, shorter road to Paletwa, but it, too, is unreliable. Kyauktaw in Rakhine state is just 33 miles away, and the road connecting it to Paletwa is covered with gravel, but the government halted work on it in early 2019 due to frequent clashes in the area.

That leaves only water transportation. Travel by boat has not been banned, but for the past eight months, fighting has also made navigating the local waterways too dangerous for most.

All of this has made life in Paletwa harder than almost anywhere else in Myanmar. Local people have been deprived of access to healthcare and education, and the cost of necessities such as rice, oil, medicine and gas has risen dramatically.

Under such dire conditions, it is difficult to maintain even the most basic services, much less hold an election. And with Covid-19 restrictions still in place, candidates on the campaign trail face even greater challenges than usual.

Amidst the chaos of the pandemic and an armed conflict that shows no signs of easing, locals say election-related ventures have yet to get off the ground.

“What we need most right now is support and strength among our brothers. And, of course, medicine and rations,” said the KNP’s Luth Aung Ba.

Fellow KNP candidate Luth Kan Lin also places great value in fraternal solidarity. But although it was his brother, KNP party chairman Luth Kyaw Htun, who encouraged him to enter politics, he is also a great believer in self-reliance.

“I felt that I would need to be a bit financially stable to do politics. So I even went to Danai to do some mining,” he recounted of his previous run for public office during the 2015 election.

But even his brother’s support and his strong desire to serve his fellow Khumi people were not enough to deliver success at the ballot box.

Once he had made enough to finance his campaign, he returned to Paletwa to try to make his mark as a newly minted politician, but to no avail. “I was called a boss at the mine, but when I got back, I lost at least 40 lakhs,” the retired auditor said, laughing.

A KNP-led demonstration held in March 2016, calling for Paletwa to be upgraded to a district. 

The KNP’s manifesto states that the party strives for the lasting prosperity of the region and the preservation of the Khumi and other ethnic cultures. The party says it aims to reduce poverty and create job opportunities, and also that it firmly believes in the importance of achieving self-administration to raise the social and economic well-being of the Khumi people.

However, when asked about strategies for winning the election, neither candidate could give a clear answer.

One problem is money. The party does not have anything like the level of funding that its rivals enjoy. The central executive committee has decided to pool its modest resources to meet campaign expenses.

Pandemic restrictions are also a hurdle. However, with Covid-19 in the picture, not being able to travel to all the villages within the township has largely eliminated the cost of canvassing for votes, said 70-year-old Luth Kan Lin.

Currently living in Matupi city, Luth Kan Lin says he awaits an opportunity to return to Paletwa. Luth Aung Ba, who is still in Yangon’s Hmawbi township even as election day fast approaches, says he hopes to get back to Paletwa by the middle of October.

The upcoming election will be the first for the 58-year-old Luth Aung Ba, whose work experience has mostly been in the hospitality field and as a sailor. In 2016, he retired and joined the party in his hometown.

At the time, the KNP chair told him that he should take advantage of the fact that he is a resident of Myanmar’s largest metropolis to attend classes on politics.

“When they asked me if I wanted to take more classes, I jokingly said no, I’ve already learned everything I need to know. So they told me it was time for me to run in the election,” Luth Aung Ba said, laughing.

The Khumi party is hoping to reach out to constituents by distributing pamphlets and sharing DVDs of the chair addressing the public. So far, however, they have not started any form of campaigning.

Luth Kan Lin said they had not received any information about how or even whether the election would be conducted.

“We don’t know if the election is still happening or not. And we don’t know if they’ve negotiated with the military for security,” he said.

The Paletwa township election commission chair, San Thar Kyaw, was not able to shed much light on the situation when contacted by Myanmar Now.

“If the Union Election Commission says there will be an election, then we’ll have an election. The most important thing is safety. Everything will run smoothly if safety is guaranteed,” he said.

But with even office supplies hard to find—“We’ll have to borrow what we need from other governmental departments,” said San Thar Kyaw—and no access to the internet, ensuring that the road to democracy in Paletwa is a smooth one will not be easy.

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