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Myanmar’s ethnic groups form new political party ahead of 2015 elections

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN / Naypyidaw

Kachin rebel on look-out at captured Burma Army position outside Laiza, the rebel HQ (Photo: Simon Roughneen, late December 2012)
Kachin rebel on look-out at captured Burma Army position outside Laiza, the rebel HQ (Photo: Simon Roughneen, late December 2012)

Myanmar’s 2015 elections, if free and fair, are thought likely to be a two-horse race between the army’s governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

The former won a landslide victory in Myanmar’s 2010 elections – a vote widely dismissed as unfree – while the latter won all but one seat in by-elections held in April last year that were unfettered by allegations of voting irregularities, prompting speculation that the NLD could win by a landslide in the 2015 national elections. That would reverse the injustice of the 1990 elections, in which the NLD won 392 out of 492 seats, but was denied the chance to govern by the army, which ignored the outcome and jailed many opposition leaders.

A spanner was thrown into the works last week, however, when 16 of the country’s ethnic minority political parties formed the new Federal Union Party (FUP), a coalition that could push hard for votes among the roughly four out 10 voters who are not ethnic Burman, the majority group from which Burma, the old name of the country, was derived. The party could — if it remains united and ethnic voters rally behind it — garner enough support to undermine the two-party race that otherwise seemed likely under Myanmar’s current first-past-the-post voting system.

Aye Maung, chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), which is part of the new FUP and which has been accused of taking part in the anti-Muslim violence that has plagued Myanmar in recent months, said that the new party has big ambitions. “We need to find a way to beat the USDP and the NLD. Ethnic people live in different areas of the country. We will find out more about where the biggest populations of ethnic minorities are, after Burma finishes its nationwide census,” he told media after the FUP was approved by Myanmar’s election commission.

That’s all good in theory, but in practice, it might not be so straightforward. The census will be the country’s first in three decades, and put simply, nobody really knows the total population of Myanmar these days. This is especially true of the remote and poor ethnic minority regions, long drained of their young, who have emigrated in the millions to Thailand and Malaysia.

In recent months, some ethnic parties, such as the New Mon State Party (NMSP), a FUP member from Mon State, have been doing the rounds in Yangon to try to determine how many of their people might be living in areas outside their traditional homelands, how they might vote, and in which constituencies.

And while ethnic parties have a historic common enemy in the Myanmar army, which ruled the country from 1962 to 2011, they are far from homogenous, consisting of Buddhist Rakhines and Shans, Christian Chins and Kachins, and Karens — themselves a mix of Buddhists and Christians — to name just a few.

Last weekend, 18 ethnic militia leaders gathered in Laiza, a small valley town on the Myanmar-China border, to discuss terms prior to a subsequent meeting with the government and army leaders. Kachin Independence Army (KIA) chairman Zawng Hkra told other ethnic leaders that “We ethnic nationalities have been suppressed in the same way. We don’t have rights. We don’t have political rights. We will fight all together for our freedom and equal rights with the cooperation of the government.”

At that meeting, 17 groups agreed to sign a ceasefire document with the government on condition that talks about Myanmar’s political make-up would follow. The minorities want the country’s constitution revised to allow greater local autonomy, with some holding out for a looser federal system, something that the Army has fought against in the past.

To date, 14 separate ceasefire agreements have been signed between Myanmar’s post-junta government and various militias, though some groups, such as the KIA, are still fighting with the army. A national ceasefire would mark the first time since the formation of the state that Myanmar’s government could say it was at peace, even if on paper only, with the country’s minorities.

After the Laiza meeting, representatives moved to Myitkina, the government-controlled regional capital of Kachin State, which is a mainly Christian and resource rich region in the north of Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The outcome was an agreement to hold follow-up talks in December in Karen State, and an acknowledgement that the much-touted national ceasefire deal is unlikely by the close of the year. That would be a blow to the government ahead of its tenure as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014.

The more difficult and divisive political talks will come later, and will likely become entangled in Myanmar’s electioneering, especially Aung San Suu Kyi’s widely known push to have the country’s constitution revised in time for the 2015 elections.

And then there is the voting system, with some smaller parties wanting the first-past-the-post system changed to proportional representation, something that the NLD opposes because the current system is more likely to give it an outright victory in 2015. The ethnic parties are themselves divided on the issue.

It only promises to get more complicated as the election draws nearer.

 

 

 

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