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In less than four days, Burma will hold its second democratic election since the end of military rule. In most of the country it will be hotly contested by the two major political parties, the National League for Democracy (NLD) headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is led by incumbent President Thein Sein.
However in Kachin State, the battle for votes will largely revolve around the NLD and local Kachin parties, not the USDP. The reason for this is due to the ongoing conflict in Kachin State between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw, or Burmese armed forces.
Recently the presence of the NLD in Kachin State has caused tension between them and the locals. Last month when the NLD was campaigning in Chipwi Township, they were attacked by residents. The NLD accused local warlord Zahkung Tin Ying of instigating the violence.
In other parts of Burma’s northernmost region, local Kachin parties feel slighted by the NLD and their leader, Suu Kyi. Some question why “The Lady” did not come and visit them when she was campaigning in Myitkyina.
Dr. Tu Ja is a former Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) vice-chairperson with 40 years of political experience. In 2009, he broke away from the KIO to start his own party, the head of Kachin State Democracy Party or KSDP. “Kachin people should vote for Kachin parties, so they can control their own area,” he told DVB. “Here, the NLD always tries to intervene and go wherever they please. They say if we vote for the NLD then everything will change, but that’s not true. We have a Union of Myanmar; if the NLD wins, it can’t cover the whole of Myanmar. To change the country, it’s not just one voice, it’s not just one party, it’s many parties with multi-ethnic voices coming together to change the country. One party can’t do so many things to change the country.”
But not all those who are ethnically Kachin are planning to vote for one of the five native parties. Prof. Sheila Nengtawng, Tu Ja’s cousin, has a somewhat different perspective – she is running for the NLD, thus demonstrating that the race in Kachin State isn’t just divided along ethnic lines but family ties as well.
“I don’t like the current government. That’s why I am running for the NLD,” she said. “Not all my friends and family support my candidacy with the NLD. They say that we Kachin people must work for each other. But we, the NLD, are thinking about the whole country. These small groups can’t change the current government because they don’t have enough strength.”
As the clock ticks down to election day, the window for forming an alliance between the NLD and local Kachin parties seems to be closing rapidly. Thomas Mung Dan, an executive officer for the Humanity Institute, paints a picture of the situation in Kachin State and the election as a whole.
“How can the NLD decide which party to make an alliance with?” he said. “It’s not easy; there are so many ethnic parties in Kachin State. It’s easier to form an alliance in regions that have only one party, like in Shan State where the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy is powerful. If the NLD wins and needs more seats to form a government, then they will make an alliance. Kachin parties are not in a position to grab the NLD’s attention. The NLD can simply ignore them for now.”
Noting that 25 percent of all seats remain reserved for the military, Thomas Mung Dan points out that: “Even if we have free and fair elections and the NLD comes to power, the constitution and the army will still be there. You can’t change things unless you can change the 2008 constitution, and you need a vote from the Tatmadaw, which is not an easy task.”
Despite the ominous barriers set out in the 2008 constitution, it has not stopped local Kachin parties from campaigning and defending their territory against the much larger national entities NLD and USDP.
La Ring from the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP) is running against Prof. Nengtawng for the same Lower House seat in Myitkyina. He said, “The NLD candidates running in this area do not have a political background and are not activists for human rights in Kachin State.”
He went on to tell DVB that his party can defeat the NLD by having more press conferences and reminding the public about their Kachin heritage. “If we get the word out, we can win by a landslide,” he stated confidently.
And that’s just what the KDP did on the night of the 28 October when it hosted a free concert and campaign rally supported by 11 Kachin musicians. Political speeches were made by La Ring and his fellow candidates from the KDP, Mar Khar and Lim Zawng. The KDP’s message to their constituents was very clear: by voting for their candidates, the KDP will protect Kachin rights, the environment, and the fight for federalism that was granted to them under the Panglong Agreement.
The KDP even brought up the recent Global Witness report about corruption in the region’s jade mines and how the people were fleeced of over US$31 billion by the government, military and their cronies.
The other three Kachin Parties are who are competing in the state have failed to garner such widespread support. Between them, they may only win a handful of seats at best.
The Unity and Democracy Party of Kachin State (UDPKS) was formed in August of 2010, and is led by Khat Htein Nan and Daw Dwe Bu. In 2010 they won five seats, but in 2012 did not contest the elections. They allied themselves in the USDP in hopes of winning seats but the tactic backfired, the result being that the party is widely seen as a proxy to the USDP. However Daw Dwe Bu is expected to hold on to the Lower House seat of Injanyang. UDPKS is fielding eight candidates in Kachin on Sunday.
The Kachin National Congress for Democracy, or KNCD, is based in Myitkyina and was formed in December 2013. They are fielding 37 candidates, and only anticipate a few seats.
Arguably the most unique of the five major Kachin parties is the Lhaovo National Unity and Development Party. Recently founded, it is made up of ethnic Lhaovo, better known as Maru, a Kachin subgroup. Based in Waingmaw, Chipwe and Tsawlaw, the party is fielding 21 candidates.
“Whoever gets elected, whether they are from the ethnic parties or the NLD, we want to make sure it’s free and fair,” concluded Thomas Mung Dan. “We don’t have much hope that there will huge change and reform, but civil society organisations are also engaged in the electoral process. We are trying to make it free and fair to the greatest extent that we can. We want to make sure those who really represent the public get elected. This is something we see as progress. Democracy is something you have to engage; it is a practice not a result. I see what is happening in Kachin State as a very positive thing.”
Read more DVB election coverage
Read more news from Kachin State