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Burma’s Ethnic Minorities Seek Equality and Greater Autonomy in Landmark Elections

7 minute read

The Shan Hills, rising from the Burmese lowlands toward China, are crammed with ethnic groups that have long chafed against any centralized authority: among them, the Pa’O, the Wa, the Ta’ang, the Intha, the Akha, the Danu, the Lisu, the Lahu, the Kayah, the Kachin, the Kokang, plus the Shan themselves, who give their name to a state that occupies nearly one-quarter of Burma’s geography.

In Burma’s landmark nationwide elections on Nov. 8, a cacophony of ethnic parties are contesting the vote, each vowing to give voice in parliament to their particular people. For decades, the Burmese state, long run by a military regime dominated by the Bamar majority, has battled ethnic armed groups in Shan state, as well as in other ethnic regions. For the villagers caught between the Burmese army and various ethnic militias, the threat of war — not to mention rape, forced labor and litany of other abuses — has precluded any sense of security. “True peace is my priority,” says Brang Di, an ethnic Kachin candidate from the northern Shan city of Lashio.

In much of the heartland of Burma, known officially as Myammar, political fealty is paid to opposition leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate whose National League for Democracy (NLD) is considered the frontrunner in Sunday’s ballot — despite a lack of reliable pre-election polling. After all, a quarter-century ago, the NLD won a landslide victory in nationwide elections. The country’s military rulers ignored that result, however, and locked up Suu Kyi for most of two decades until her release in late 2010. A victory for the NLD on Sunday could help absolve the sins of history.

But in Burma’s vast ethnic frontier — at least one-third of its population is not from the Bamar majority — Suu Kyi’s allure is less compelling. In 1990, the NLD may have triumphed but the party with the second-largest number of votes was the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).

This time around, many leaders of ethnic parties are upset that the NLD is running candidates in ethnic strongholds, potentially cleaving the opposition vote. Suu Kyi has argued that her party is a nationwide force for democracy and needs to compete head-to-head with the ruling Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP), the military’s proxy, which is contesting seats across the country. The USDP prevailed in 2010 polls that the NLD boycotted because they were clearly rigged in the military’s favor. (The SNLD also declined to take part since its leader was in jail, having been sentenced to 93 years’ imprisonment; he was released in an amnesty in 2012.) Suu Kyi’s message is direct: vote for the NLD so we can form a government and then change the country.

Inside Burma’s First Free Nationwide Election in 25 years

Burma general elections
A voter holds his citizen ID card while lining up to cast his ballot at a polling station in Yangon, Burma on Nov. 8, 2015.Rungroj Yongrit—EPA
Burma Elections
People stand outside a polling station in Mandalay, Burma on Nov. 8, 2015.Hkun Lat—AP
Elections In Burma
Voters check the list at a polling station in the Chinatown during Myanmar's first free and fair election in Yangon on Nov. 8, 2015.Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images
Burma Elections
The media prepares as Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's National League for Democracy party, arrives at a polling station in Yangon, on Nov. 8, 2015. Amanda Mustard—AP
Aung San Suu Kyivisits a polling station in Kawhmu township, Yangon on Nov. 8, 2015.Ye Aung Thu—AFP/Getty Images
Votes are counted in an unfinished building being used as a polling station in Yangon on Nov. 8, 2015.Amanda Mustard—AP
Elections In Burma
People take part of the rally outside the National League for Democracy office after Burma's first free and fair election, in Yangon on Nov. 8, 2015.Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

Many ethnic parties are skeptical. “The NLD’s priority is democracy,” says Sai Lynn Myat, southern Shan state secretary for the SNLD in the state capital, Taunggyi. “Our priority is equality. The Burmese look at ethnic people as second-class citizens.” Part of the reverence accorded to Suu Kyi comes from her long years of house arrest; she could have left for exile but chose to remain in Burma. Her reputation also depends on family legacy: Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, is considered the nation’s independence hero. In early 1947, Aung San convened representatives from some of modern-day Burma’s biggest ethnic groups in the Shan hilltown of Panglong and promised a federal union upon liberation from Britain. The Federated Shan States — as a collection of 34 principalities were known — were even give the right to secede in a decade, should the union not prove to its liking. But months later, when his daughter was just two years old, Aung San was assassinated. The dream of federalism died with the Bamar chauvinist soldiers who later commandeered the country.

When Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, she spoke about holding another Panglong Conference in order to address the needs of Burma’s ethnic groups. But such a meeting never happened. Although the junta and its quasi-military successor government signed ceasefires with many ethnic militias, including a much-touted agreement last month, fighting still flares in Shan and Kachin states. The UNHCR estimates that around half a million refugees, mostly from ethnic groups, are still outside the country, many in neighboring Thailand. In addition, Burma’s population of internally displaced and stateless people is nearly 1.2 million strong, according to the UNHCR. Among them are the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group from far western Burma that has been disenfranchised in this election.

The NLD may well perform strongly in some ethnic areas, especially in cities where no one ethnic group predominates. “There’s no other party that can try to bring democracy to our whole country,” says Tin Maung Toe, an NLD candidate in Taunggyi, who spent eight years in jail for his political activities. “We respect the ethnic opposition parties but we need enough seats to form a government.” Suu Kyi’s campaigning in ethnic regions, including Shan, attracted ecstatic crowds. But ethnic allegiance and distrust of the Bamar, who many ethnic people simply refer to as “Burmese,” run deep. “Local people say the USDP is Burmese and the NLD is also Burmese,” says Hkun Soe Myint, general secretary of the Union PaO National Organization, which represents the Pa’O people, and who spent years fighting in the jungle with an ethnic armed group. “They are from the same source.”

If the NLD wins in a landslide, it must contend with a parliament in which one-quarter of seats are reserved for members of the military. The junta may have introduced some political reforms but it also has retained significant power for the top brass. Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency, although she has said that she will fill a position “above the President,” should her party prove victorious.

In another scenario, should the NLD not win enough seats to form a government, it could form alliances with democracy-minded ethnic parties. Some, despite their frustration with the NLD for contesting seats in ethnic areas, will join her camp. But they will surely try to extract promises of true federalism from Suu Kyi, who they feel doesn’t have the commitment to such a political system that her father did. “We want to work together [with the NLD],” says Aye Maung, president of the Rakhine National Party, which represents the ethnic Rakhine of western Burma. “We don’t want to work under their supervision.”

Other ethnic parties have made de-facto accords with the USDP, and if the military-linked party does better than expected — possibly with the help of the voting irregularities that have already concerned election monitors — it could potentially cobble together enough representation in parliament to rule. (The USDP also is fielding ethnic candidates: one of the country’s current vice presidents is Shan.)

Either way, ethnic parties may well serve as kingmakers during the wheeling and dealing that will follow the vote. “Whoever wins will come running to us,” says Hla Yeir Htut, a Shan who is running in Sunday’s elections as a member of the Federal Union Party, a coalition of various ethnic parties. “We hold the power.”

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