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Sai Nyunt Lwin, the secretary of the largest ethnic Shan political party, seemed a deflated figure at his desk in the organisation’s Rangoon headquarters.
“We were hit by an NLD tsunami,” he said as his eyes flicked around the room from behind his spectacles. The white polo shirt he was wearing was emblazoned with the tiger logo of his Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD).
The party failed to roar on Sunday, as Shans voted in record numbers across Burma’s largest ethnic state. As official results and unofficial counts immediately began filtering through, it became clear that it was the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s fighting peacock that was to emerge as the winning specimen from this heavyweight bout within Burma’s political menagerie.
“The NLD got many seats in our area. We got about one third of what we had hoped for. Not nearly enough,” Sai Nyunt Lwin said.
The SNLD has by no means disgraced itself. As of Thursday evening’s election results, it will contribute at least 15 MPs to the new-look 664 seat Union Parliament when it sits for the first time in April. The party has scored 27 seats in Shan State’s regional assembly so far.
Yet the SNLD is now appearing as a shadow of the domineering figure that the party cut in the lead up to the 8 November vote. Right up until voting day, many a political soothsayer had predicted the larger ethnic parties to emerge as post-election kingmakers. Appearing to be on the crest of a wave of minority nationalism, groups such as the SNLD and the Arakan National Party (ANP) were expected to score a glut of Upper and Lower House seats, robbing the major Burman parties of the chance for a majority.
“Regarding the issue of post-election alliances, the picture is clear for us”, Sai Nyunt Lwin boldly told DVB’s ‘National Elections Debate’ days before the polls that cut his party down. “We will join only with the democratic groups,” he said.
The SNLD is a member of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, a group of democratically-minded ethnic parties that forged a bond with the NLD shortly after the 1990 election. That year the NLD romped to a win now echoed two and a half decades later.“They chose the NLD as the lesser of two evils.”
In 2010, when the NLD boycotted a general election now considered as a sham, their ethnic partners followed suit. The refusal to run led to the splintering of many of the ethnic parties that had named themselves after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. SNLD figures left to form the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party. A new Rakhine Nationalities Development Party split from the Arakan National League for Democracy. These rebels contested and won many seats in 2010, while the loyalists had to wait until the 2012 by-elections to get a foot in the door.
This time around, many expected Suu Kyi’s party to pay back its ethnic allies by not contesting their strongholds, leaving them to take the fight to the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). That didn’t happen. Instead, the NLD ran across the country, fielding individual ethnic candidates in their respective areas. The move has now paid off in a big way across the country.
The SNLD’s losing experience is one mimicked across Burma, indeed, it is the Shan party that may well wind-up doing best of all. The ANP has performed reasonably well in its home state, notwithstanding the ejection of its leader Dr Aye Maung from his constituency. It’s a wipe-out elsewhere. In Kachin, Karen and Mon states the major ethnic parties all failed to pick up more than four seats as of Thursday. The projections don’t look good either.
The Karenni State Parliament will be bereft of any local party representatives.
“The upsurge of support for the NLD among the indigenous peoples is interesting, considering ethnic politics is concentrated largely in extra-parliamentary politics, that being the armed struggle” said Khun Nawng, a London-based Kachin observer.
He says that many ethnic voters whose lives have been dominated by war see the “election as not a game changer, which suggests their disillusionment and unwillingness to strategically engage in electoral politics under Burma’s flawed constitution. They chose the NLD as the lesser of two evils.”
Many trapped in Burma’s war zones did not even have that choice. In central Shan State, Burmese troops have waged an assault on the positions of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). The attacks have continued since early October, when the group signalled that it would be among those that would not accede to a pre-drafted ‘Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement’ with Naypyidaw.
The SSA-N say that helicopter gunships attacked the town of Wanhai, where they are headquartered, just as the first batches of election results were announced on Monday and Tuesday. No results will come from the war zone. The vote was completely cancelled in seven Shan State townships, two being conflict areas. The move robbed the people of their chance to vote, and the SNLD of the chance to vie for six seats across all legislatures that it was banking on winning.
“About 10 days from elections, polling was cancelled in Mong Hsu Township and Kye Thi Township. These are our hardcore SNLD areas. That was six seats gone,” Sai Nyunt Lwin said.
“There is no foreign enemy. Nobody from foreign countries came here and attacked them. The government should show some good will.”
The vote did not go ahead in vast swathes of the Karen populated areas of eastern Burma either, nor did it in some Kachin areas.
The Burmese military’s refusal to pause hostilities to allow the Thein Sein government to conduct a fully-nationwide poll highlights the political indemnity that the defence services enjoy. Ignoring the national vote, the Burmese army has continued to make an example of the ceasefire-recalcitrant SSA-N.
The attacks will serve as a warning to those hoping that the military will march in step with former-general Thein Sein if and when he honours his promise of a peaceful and correct transferal of power to Suu Kyi and the NLD. When Suu Kyi gets that power, she has a responsibility to represent the ethnic voters that have shunned their own various parties to put faith in her promise of reconciliation in a multi-ethnic society, says Khun Nawng.
“Unlike the Burmese military-backed government that has driven a large number of indigenous populations out of their homelands in its initial phase of the ‘disciplined flourishing democracy’ project, it is imperative for her party to prove that democracy is not just built on the corpses of the minority peoples for the advancement of the Burmese majority” Khun Nawng said.