Myanmar’s gradual transition away from military rule will take an important step forward on November 8 with the country’s most significant election for decades and at this historic juncture, the nation’s ethnic minorities have a unique opportunity to gain greater influence over the country’s future progress.
Ethnic minorities in Myanmar, which account for 40 percent of the country’s population, could win as much as 30 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats and, as a united bloc, wield considerable power. Leaders from Burma’s seven ethnic minority states have long sought that the country establish a federal system of government, a notion the military government had previously been unwilling to entertain but with a changing political landscape there is finally hope that progress towards this goal could be made. However, the ability of the ethnic groups to achieve this is fraught with challenges which make the impact of the ethnic minority vote very unpredictable.
One challenge facing the ethnic minority groups is a lack of political unity which has led to the establishment of over 40 minority political parties. Voters in Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karen and Karenni states are now faced with choices between at least two parties claiming to represent their eponymous ethnic group. This leaves these independent parties competing amongst themselves, something that could benefit the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Another challenge facing the ethnic minority communities is the cancellation of elections in regions with ongoing conflict. The Union Election Commission (UEC) has confirmed that elections at 350 village tracts in Kachin State, Kayin State, Bajo Region, Mon State and Shan State will be cancelled for ‘security concerns’. The UEC hasn’t disclosed the number of voters this will exclude from the elections but the Myanmar Times predicts the numbers will “almost certainly be in the millions”. The exclusion of such vast numbers raises questions about the democratic integrity of these ‘free and fair’ elections. There have also been claims that cancellations in some regions were politically motivated.
On October 15 a ’nationwide’ ceasefire agreement was signed which many had hoped would enable more communities to participate in the elections. However the agreement was only signed by eight of the country’s 20 Armed Ethnic Organizations (AEO), a factor that severely undermined the agreement’s legitimacy. Some observers believe the government has been using the ceasefire agreement as a strategy to create discord between the ethnic groups, a strategy that appears to be working.
Just one week before the elections, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) hosted a rebel summit at Panghsang in Shan State exclusively for non-signatory AEOs. The summit focused on tackling the split caused by the ceasefire agreement and planning how to deal with a newly formed government. The fractures between the AEOs suggest there is also a lack of political unity between these ethnic groups, something that could prove detrimental to achieving their common goals.
The ethnic minority parties also face a challenge from the main opposition party, the NLD, who are predicted to win a number of seats in the seven ethnic minority states. During the run up to the elections, NLD party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, spent time campaigning at townships in Karenni State, Kachine State and Rakhine State. Local parties in these regions have acknowledged that the democracy icon remains a formidable opponent, as Dr Tu Ja, of the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP) explained, “We do welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But we don’t want to allow her to take all the seats in Kachin state. It is not just the Kachin who feel like this; all the ethnic nationalities like the Shan, the Arakanese, the Chin and the Mon have this view.”
Despite drawing large crowds along the campaign trail, many ethnic minority voters still view the NLD as the party of the Bamar Buddhists and they are unsure how committed the NLD are to establishing federal governance and granting ethnic minority states the regional powers they seek. During her campaign in Karenni State, Suu Kyi reassured voters the NLD was committed to protecting minority rights and accommodating ethnic political parties, “Even though we are competing against ethnic parties, that will not decrease the rights of ethnic people, if we can form government, we will serve the rights of ethnic people and protect them well.”
It is no surprise that Suu Kyi has been working to appeal to ethnic minority communities, because neither the NLD nor the USDP appear likely to win an outright majority. Once the votes are counted these two main parties will be looking to form alliances with smaller regional parties. If ethnic minority parties are able negotiate favorable terms, these elections could be a first step towards achieving the constitutional changes and devolution of power these communities have been fighting for since Burma’s independence.