People queue to cast their ballots at a polling station in Yangon on Nov. 8. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Maria Ja Taung, a displaced ethnic Kachin, hasn't lost hope of a better future with a peaceful situation in conflict-torn Kachin state in northern Myanmar.
She said she and other internally displaced persons (IDPs) including her three children from St. Paul’s Ja Mai Kaung camp, run by the Catholic Church’s social arm Karuna Myanmar, were eager to cast their ballots in the Nov. 8 polls.
“I’m excited to vote as I believe each citizen's vote is crucial to ensure a good government,” said Ja Taung, a Catholic widow.
She fled Gadayan village near Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), when fighting intensified nearby in June 2011.
Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have been forced into 167 IDP camps in parts of Kachin and northern Shan state that are variously controlled by government and non-government forces.
Fighting has plagued this mountainous northern region since Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Most of Kachin’s 1.7 million Kachins are Christians including 116,000 Catholics.
Ja Taung realizes peace remains elusive and it is a long way for her to go back to her place of origin due to the insecure situation.
“Despite setbacks and challenges under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, I still hope to see peace in the post-election era,” Ja Taung told UCA News.
She has decided that she will vote for the Kachin party for the regional parliament and for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party for the upper and lower houses.
“At Kachin state level, it is important to have a victory for Kachin politicians who know the reality of the local situation,” she said.
Suu Kyi’s image wanes
Despite Suu Kyi having wide public support in Bamar-majority regions including Yangon and Mandalay, her image has waned in ethnic regions over her failure to bring peace to the border heartlands.
She pledged to end decades-long civil wars but her promises collapsed as fighting still rages in ethnic areas. especially in Rakhine and Shan states.
Ethnic-based parties suffered major electoral losses in the 2015 general election as voters across the country including ethnic groups were only focused on electing Suu Kyi’s NLD into power by trouncing the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
By taking lessons learned from previous elections, ethnic-based parties from Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin and Mon states merged in 2018 into single parties to win more seats in the 2020 election.
The new parties — Kachin State People’s Party, Karen National Democratic Party, Chin National League, Kayah State Democratic Party and Mon Unity Party — are expected to make life harder for Suu Kyi’s NLD.
Minority ethnic groups make up a third of Myanmar’s 54 million people. Major Christian populations are found among them in the states of Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah.
Peter Naung Latt, an IDP from Kutkai township in Shan state, said most IDPs were still undecided about who to vote for. Many believe things have not improved in the last five years as fighting continues unabated in ethnic regions.
“Many people including ethnic groups had high expectations of the government led by Suu Kyi after the 2015 election, but people have lost hope in her performance,” Naung Latt told UCA News.
He said Suu Kyi’s NLD party is not as popular in the region as the Shan and Ta’ang ethnic parties.
On Oct. 16, the Union Election Commission announced that elections would be canceled in 192 village tracts in 11 of 18 townships in Kachin state including all areas under KIA control, along with Rakhine, Shan and Bago regions, by citing security reasons. About 38,000 IDPs from KIA-controlled areas will not be able to vote.
Some 1.4 million voters will be disenfranchised including most voters in Rakhine state, according to the US-based Carter Center, which will observe the election.
The grievances of minority groups go back seven decades, underpinning just why Myanmar’s ethnic groups see such a tough road ahead despite a concerted effort by the NLD-led government.
Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, led the country to independence from Britain, reached an agreement regarding self-autonomy and federalism with the Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups in 1947, but failed to secure several other ethnic groups.
Soon afterward, Aung San was assassinated and the deal was never fulfilled. In the aftermath, ethnic groups took up arms against the central government.
Since then, ethnic people from Myanmar’s seven states have long called for what Aung San agreed — a system based on federalism and autonomy. The rights of minority groups were neglected during the decades-long rule of the Bamar majority’s iron-fisted military.