‘We merged and we won’ – ethnic parties set aside differences to claw back seats from NLD

Across Myanmar’s border states, smaller ethnic parties have been merging into larger groups in an attempt to oust the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) from local and national seats in the 2020 general election.

Ethnic parties learned a lesson in 2015 when they fought against each other for seats and split the vote against the NLD several ways, helping the dominant party secure a landslide victory and trounce candidates in border areas.

In the 2010 election, held under the military regime, ethnic political parties won 180 seats; in 2015, they won 140.

Past experience suggests merging can be a winning strategy. The Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), led by Aye Tha Aung, and Aye Maung’s Rakhine National Development Party (RNDP) consolidated in 2014 to form the Arakan National Party (ANP).

Campaigning as a single party representing Rakhine people in the 2015 election, the ANP was able to secure 22 of 35 seats at the regional parliament, capturing a majority of their local legislature.

But the new alliances can be fragile, and former rivals are prone to infighting. In July 2017 a faction within ANP split from the party and in 2019, with Aye Maung’s son, founded the new Arakan Front Party (AFP).

A unifying theme

Ethnic parties in Kachin State won just four seats of 36 in 2015, while the NLD won 26. Now, the Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State, the Kachin State Democracy Party and the Kachin Democratic Party have consolidated into the Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) at the beginning of the year.

The party’s deputy chair, said he would prefer if ethnic parties could work alongside the NLD, but that isn’t an option. “They don’t want to form a coalition government,” he said, “so this time we have to defeat them.

In Chin State, the Chin National Democratic Party, the Chin Progressive Party and the Chin National League for Democracy joined up to form the Chin League for Democracy (CLD) last September. Consolidation has been more popular there than elsewhere, and political cooperation has been a dominant campaign theme since at least 2016.

“We merged because of the people’s demand. Because of the consolidation, we won a seat in 2018,” said Salai Shein Tun, CLD secretary, referring to a by-election victory in Matupi for regional assembly.

In by-elections for national and regional seats that year, the NLD won 9 of 13 vacant seats.

In 2018, the All Mon Region Democracy Party, the Mon National Party (MNP) and the New Mon National Party merged to form the Mon Unity Party in Mawlamyine, the state’s capital, registering the party with the election commission in July of this year.

Chin National League for Democracy’s office in Htilin Township, Chin State(Photo: CNLD Facebook Page)

In Kayin State in February 2018, the Karen Democratic Party, the Karen State Democracy and Development Party and the Karen Unity Democratic Party merged into the Karen National Democractic Party (KNDP), while the Kayah State Nationalities League for Democracy and the All Nationals’ Democracy Party joined to form the Kayah National Democratic Party.

Before the 2018 by-elections there were 58 registered ethnic political parties, while now there are 50. There are currently 96 registered political parties in total.

Though they have new names, many of the messages coming from these newly-consolidated ethnic parties remain the same.

Salai Shein Tun said the CLD will campaign on a theme of “nationalism,” by which he said he means the defence of Chin culture and traditions.

“This is the most important thing in ethnic regions,” he said.

He was echoed by KNDP chairman Mann Aung Pyi Soe, who said “ethno-nationalism” will be a key point in his party’s campaign.

The KSSP’s deputy chair told Myanmar Now his party’s main concern is the votes from military members and their families within its constituency.

“Many more military families live here than in other areas, and their votes will go to the USDP,” said Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, referring to the military’s proxy party.

Divisions remain

Still, some ethnic parties remain unable to smooth out their differences.

Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said major issues facing these parties include the selection of party leadership and the policy-drafting process.

In Shan State, in the 2015 general election, competition between Shan parties and the NLD led to easy victories for the USDP there, but a history of policy disagreements has kept the Shan National Democratic Party and the Shan National League for Democracy from merging.

United or divided, there is one party most ethnic politicians and voters want out.

Senior members of ethnic parties told Myanmar Now that, since coming to office in 2016, the NLD’s once strong relationship with ethnic parties and alliances has deteriorated markedly—evidenced by the party’s shrinking support in ethnic areas in 2017 and 2018 by-elections.

The United Nationalities Alliance, an alliance of ethnic political parties that has long advocated collaboration with the NLD, was once much closer with the party, said Salai Shein Tun.

“The two had joined hands but big influential parties do not have any policies for ethnic people. The USDP doesn’t have any. Neither does the NLD,” he added.

Relations soured even more when the NLD’s MPs, who dominate parliament, voted in 2017 to name a bridge in Mon state after Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, despite widespread local opposition. The NLD also garnered criticism for its attempts to build statues of Aung San in cities in Kachin and Kayah states.

Karen National Democratic Party’s office in Hpa-an, Karen State(Photo : KNDP Facebook Page)

“It’s a shame that the NLD doesn’t consider allying with ethnic parties,” said Kayah State Democratic Party general secretary Khu Thae Reh. “Their claim that they want to build a federal union is a joke to us.”

Still, Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, the KSPP deputy chair, hopes for an ethnic-NLD coalition at the national level.

“Some believe that a coalition would be a better option if there is a desire for a federated government. It would be good if it were inclusive. If there is a coalition government at the national level, regional parties would automatically have administrative rights at the state level,” he said.

Ethnic parties are hoping voter disillusionment with the NLD will translate into votes for homegrown political parties in 2020.

In the 2015 election, the NLD won almost every seat in Mon State. “People believed 100 percent and they voted NLD expecting the NLD to change their lives,” said Min Soe Thein, a resident of Ye Township.

Himself a strong NLD supporter in 2015, he said he no longer trusts the party and will not vote for them in 2020.

“They haven’t implemented their election manifesto at all, and I don’t see their representatives at all able to do so either,” he said.

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