Voting to go ahead in all of Hlaingbwe for the first time

This coming Sunday, 29-year-old Saw Kae Doh will finally get to vote for the first time in his life. His home village of Law Kaw, some 48km from the town of Hlaingbwe in Karen state’s Hpa-an district, was forced to sit out the last two elections, in 2010 and 2015, due to security concerns. 

No election has been held in the eight village tracts of Law Kaw, Win Saw, Mi Kyaung, Tar Lal, Tha Moh, Yin Bine, Yay Ta Khon and Mae Lay Yar over the past decade because of the risk of armed conflict.

This resulted in a lack of representation in the halls of power, which in turn hindered regional development, according to Saw Kae Doh.

“I believe our feelings, needs, difficulties and voices will now be able to reach parliament,” he said.

The Law Kaw village tract will have more than 16,000 first-time voters like Saw Kae Doh in this year’s election. After being left out of the political transition that began a decade ago, they will finally have a say in who represents them in parliament.

New mechanisms

In the 2010 and 2015 elections, voting was restricted in all of Karen state’s seven townships as a result of ongoing instability. That means that in every township, at least some voters were disenfranchised. 

Hlaingbwe, with its 13 wards and 72 village tracts, has a population of more than 280,000 people, including 230,000 who are eligible to vote. Many, however, were unable to cast their ballots in the past two elections because of the uncertain situation on the ground. 

It was only after the Karen National Union (KNU), which is headquartered in the township at Lay Wah camp, signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015 that this began to change.

But even after the KNU, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), and the Karen National Union/ Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNU/KNLAPC) all signed the NCA, there was still no mechanism in place to ensure that everybody in the state would be able to vote.

Saw Thein Kyi, the chair of the Hpa-an district election sub-commission, said that efforts to coordinate with the armed groups proved too difficult.  

“We did our best,” he said, adding that after the NCA was signed, regional administrators were appointed and election sub-commissions were formed to make voter lists.

Over time, the government has established means of increasing the number of areas where people can vote, according to the KNU general secretary, Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo.

“In some places, the government is expanding their control and setting up their administration. It now seems possible to do more in these areas under the ceasefire agreement,” he told Myanmar Now.

But even as more people in the township join the voter rolls, the KNU said that it had no interest in joining their ranks. 

“There’s no reason for us to vote. Only a few of us even have our crumpled old ID cards. We’re not at the stage yet where the government wants us to vote. And, of course, we can’t accept voting under the terms of the 2008 constitution,” said Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo.

He added that the government also hasn’t reached out to the KNU for help with security during the election.

“We weren’t informed of anything. They’re doing what they have to do, and there’s no reason for us to disrupt that,” he said.

But even as the KNU stays out of the election, people living in areas under its control will be able to vote, according to

Karen state election sub-commission chair Kyaw Win Maung.

“Villages controlled by the KNU are included. There are some villages that are allowed to have polling stations. If it isn’t allowed, polling stations are opened in nearby villages,” he said.

Saw Thein Kyi, the Hpa-an election sub-commission chair, said that preparations for the election, including security measures, are proceeding smoothly.

“Everything is being done in accordance with UEC guidelines,” he said, referring to the Union Election Commission’s safety regulations.

According to Captain Naing Maung Zaw of the Karen State Border Guard Force, security plans were drawn up based on instructions from the Myanmar military. 

“Armed groups cannot be within 500 yards of the polling station. This is the policy. The military has set up some places and we’re cooperating with them to provide security,” he said.

Mixed messages

Before October 16, when the UEC announced which parts of the country would not be able to hold elections, opinions about the security situation in Hlaingbwe were decidedly mixed.

Saw Chit Khin, the sitting speaker of the Karen state parliament, sent a letter to the UEC on October 12 urging it to remove seven village tracts in Amyotha Hluttaw constituency 9 and Hlaingbwe constituency 2 from the constituency lists.

Citing campaign constraints such as poor travel conditions and Covid-19 restrictions, as well as safety concerns related to the presence of armed groups, he called on the UEC to suspend voting in the designated areas.

Two days later, however, he revoked his request and apologized for his poor choice of words, saying that he should not have spoken of a “lack of safety due to armed groups stationed in the area.” 

“I was just thinking of how to ensure a smooth election for everyone. But some people didn’t like it, and some people misinterpreted it,” he told Myanmar Now.

For their part, candidates expressed surprise at the state parliament speaker’s concerns.

Saw Kyaw Lwin Oo, an independent candidate contesting in Hlaingbwe constituency 2, said he had some questions about the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, but was otherwise unconcerned.

He said he had already been on campaign trips to several of the village tracts mentioned in the letter, and saw nothing to worry about.

“I don’t know why the state parliament speaker would say that it’s unsafe. The armed groups welcome the election. It’s been a long time since we had any kind of conflict like before. There have been no disruptions during the campaign,” he said.

Zaw Nyunt, the chair of the Hlaingbwe township election sub-commission, agreed that Saw Chit Khin’s concerns were overstated. 

“It is true that transportation is difficult, but you can’t just leave a place out for that reason. It’s their right to vote,” he told Myanmar Now.

Ruling party vs. regional Karen party

A total of 16 candidates will contest four seats representing Hlaingbwe in the Pyithu Hluttaw, Amyotha Hluttaw and state parliament in the upcoming election. This includes candidates from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the Karen National Democratic Party (KNDP), the Union Betterment Party (UBP), and two independents.

In 2010, the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party, a Karen party, won in every Hlaingbwe constituency where the election was held. In 2015, the NLD won all four seats.

The KNDP was formed by bringing together three ethnic Karen parties: the Karen Democratic Party, the Karen State Democracy and Development Party, and the United Karen National Democratic Party. It was registered in December 2017.

Currently, there are four Karen parties nationwide: the KNDP and the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party in Karen state, and the Karen National Party and the Karen People’s Party, based in Yangon.

On October 15, the fifth anniversary of its signing of the NCA, the KNU released a statement urging the Karen people to vote for Karen parties as part of a strategy to achieve national equality and self-determination.

KNDP members campaign in villages in Hlaingbwe township in September. (Nan Aye Mya Marlar/Facebook)

In Hlaingbwe, the KNDP enjoys solid support, making it the most serious challenger to the NLD’s incumbent candidates.

“We have a lot of supporters. There’s a lot of hope that an ethnic party will win this time around,” said KNDP chair Man Aung Pyae Soe, who is running to represent Hlaingbwe constituency 2 in the state parliament.

First time voters in some village tracts are eager to vote but still lack awareness of the voting system, said Saw Kyaw Lwin Oo, an independent candidate.

In Saw Kae Doh’s village, villagers over the age of 70 are voting for the first time in their lives.

“This is the only time they’ve ever voted. They went in person to cast advance votes, and they were very enthusiastic about it. But of course, they don’t understand the system very well,” said Saw Kae Doh.

But in a township where many have been deprived of an opportunity to participate in the democratic process, this year’s election is likely to be a learning experience for everyone.

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