A file image of ethnic Kachin people in traditional dress wait along a street in Yangon on Nov. 27, 2017 with the hopes of seeing Pope Francis on his way from the airport after arriving in the country. (Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP)
Ethnic-based parties in Myanmar suffered major electoral losses in the 2015 general election but they’re planning to do better for the next national elections due next year.
Looking to improve, parties representing ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin and Mon peoples each merged last year into single parties to win more seats in the 2020 elections.
The new parties — Kachin State People’s Party, the Karen National Democratic Party, the Chin National League, the Kayah State Democratic Party and the Mon Unity Party — are expected to make life harder for Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD).
Yan Myo Thein, a Yangon-based political analyst, said the mergers will increase the ethnic groups chances especially in Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states.
He said support for the NLD party has diminished among people in ethnic regions.
“It will be an uphill battle for the NLD to win a landslide victory like they did 2015,” Yan Myo Thein said.
“But all ethnic parties need to reach a common platform and strategy so to best carry out political bargaining after the election,” he said.
Two-thirds of around 95 registered political parties represent minority groups from Myanmar's seven ethnic-based states. Minority ethnic groups make up a third of the country's 51.5 million people. Major Christian populations are found among them in the states of Chin, Kachin, Karen and Kayah.
Manam Tu Ja, a Catholic who was the chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party that merged with two other parties to create Kachin State People’s Party, said the overall goal of merging ethnic parties is to improve regional development.
“We are listening to the wishes of ethnic peoples and we want to avoid vote splitting,” said Tu Ja who was also the former vice-president of the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army.
Tu Ja said many ethnic people were not satisfied with the performance of the Suu Kyi-led government, including over its peace building efforts.
Myanmar has endured de facto civil wars for decades and fighting still rages in states such as Shan and Rakhine where local ethnic populations are dominant.
“We are confident next year our ethnic parties will do better and win more seats especially at regional parliaments,” Tu Ja said.
Pe Than, a lower house MP for the Arakan National Party (ANP), sees the merger of ethnic parties as being a step forward for improving the federal system.
“But we need to wait and see whether ethnic parties can compete with the ruling NLD party which has resources for campaigning and the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi,” Pe Than said.
The ANP had a strong showing in 2015 elections but it was denied major roles in regional government which fueled resentment against the NLD government in restive Rakhine State the scene of a massive military crackdown against Rohingya Muslims and operations against the ethnic-based Arakan Army.
Most ethnic-based parties suffered major losses in the 2015 national election as the NLD swept to power by defeating the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party.
But the NLD got only nine out of the 19 seats while it won only seven out of the 13 seats in national and state parliaments in 2017 and 2018 by-elections respectively.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi at the Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and Peace in Myanmar, in Naypyidaw on May 7. (Photo by Thet Aung/AFP)
Suu Kyi has been locked in a power sharing agreement with the military who hold considerable power in Myanmar politics due to the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.
The constitution also bars Suu Kyi from becoming president because she was married to a foreigner, resulting in her taking the dual roles of state counselor and foreign minister.
Suu Kyi has been under pressure over the perceived slow pace of reform, the Rohingya persecution and sporadic fighting in the country's north and west.
Naw San, a Catholic and lower house MP for the NLD in Kachin State, said the Suu Kyi-led government is trying hard to fulfill the promises of 2015 election: peace, rule of law and amending the 2008 Constitution.
“I understand that people from ethnic areas are not satisfied with the peace process, but the government is trying to negotiate with the military and ethnic armed groups towards a durable peace,” said Naw San who is also a central executive committee member.
He said the civilian government can’t handle all issues themselves because they are limited by the 2008 Constitution.
“Since early this year, we, the NLD, have been trying to amend the Constitution through a national parliament,” Naw San said.