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In Myanmar, outside the cities

Can the politicization of Myanmar's rural communities topple the self-serving military elite? 

Charlotte England
6 November 2015
 Charlotte England. All rights reserved.

She Leads workshop in a small village near Yangon. Credit: Charlotte England. All rights reserved.On Sunday 8 November, Myanmar is expected to hold the closest thing it has had to a democratic general election in over fifty years. Two hours outside of Yangon, Myanmar’s gridlocked, etiolating former capital, villagers still have little idea how to vote, but most know who they want to vote for. A dusty toddler is eating a strawberry ice lolly, a large red National League for Democracy (NLD) sticker is plastered on his small forehead, the party’s fighting peacock emblem stretching from tiny ear to tiny ear.

The raised wooden houses are sparsely decorated. Most people can’t afford surplus possessions here, but many have posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the almost deified leader of the NLD, or her father, independence hero Bogyoke Aung San, on the wall. 

A group of women — participants of a civil society initiative to empower women in the political process — have bussed in to show villagers how to correctly fill out a ballot. The volunteers are industriously cutting sheets of paper into strips printed with a choice of fruits instead of candidates. Their programme, She Leads, is the child of Burmese civil society organisation Yaung Chi Thit, but it is funded by the International Fund for Electoral Systems, and the British, Australian and Swiss Governments. All the sponsors have their logo stamped prominently on the women’s pristine white shirts.

The election is largely rigged.

Britain and the rest of Europe, Australia, and the United States, are all pumping funds into the Burmese election, and their blinkers are set towards making it as free and fair as possible. That is despite the Burmese government’s appalling human rights record, which includes what is probably an ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Rakhine state.

It is also despite the fact that, in reality, the election is largely rigged: a quarter of seats in both the lower and upper house are still reserved for the military; the unreserved seats are being contested by the incumbent Union Solidarity Development Party which is largely comprised of ex-generals and appears to be using manipulative, underhand tactics to try and prise every seat they can away from the NLD and from ethnic parties; the army have a veto of changes to the constitution, and have refused to amend a convenient technicality that makes Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible to become president. I could go on.

 Charlotte England. All rights reserved.

She Leads participant Ma Thi Zan. Credit: Charlotte England. All rights reserved.Back in the village people are confused, despite clear training from the She Leads women. Rather than voting for their favourite fruit, many have selected every fruit they like. The volunteers patiently explain the mistake, making the audience — who are paying rapt attention — laugh rather than lose morale. Everyone gamely tries again when they realise that, in a first past the post system, you must only pick one fruit. 

She Leads participants, who number 513 and include many disabled and ethnic minority women, have organised numerous training events like this across the country of their own volition. 

Thi Zan, 34, and Khin San Win, 36, were both recruited by She Leads from the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative, a disability organisation. Today they are sharing a single wheelchair. Thi Zan leverages herself onto the ground with strong arms. Khin San Win manoeuvres herself with crutches into the seat. “I not only organised this training session,” Khin San Win tells me, “I also mobilised people to check the voter register and taught them how to vote in another township too.”

In a first past the post system, you must only pick one fruit. 

According to Khin Hla, the director of Yaung Chi Thit, She Leads participants everywhere are mobilising people to check the voter list, and helping people to fill out the necessary forms if they’re left off or if there are errors to the listing. “I met with one Chin alumni from the She Leads programmes, and the sub-commission said that when they display the voter list [she checks it],” Khin Hla said. “For example [often] one person is duplicated in three or four places on one sheet, so she objects to the electoral commission. She knows who has already died, who was in a foreign country, so she tells the commission to delete those names”.

Meanwhile, the electoral commission is doing little to remedy the fact that the electoral register is deeply flawed. For people left off the roll, registering is often a bureaucratic nightmare which many people within the country, let alone outside it, have not been able to navigate.

In the village, people are pleased with the training, especially when they accept — with telling surprise — that it hasn’t been organised by any political party, and that they are only going to be told how to vote, not who they must vote for. 

The USDP — not content with propagandising through state media — are the primary culprits for using underhand tactics to win seats. They’re still unlikely to do well, but they don’t need to do very well in order to maintain the power balance in parliament in their favour, given the army reservation. Every seat counts. 

 Charlotte England. All rights reserved.

Cheery Zahau on the campaign trail. Credit: Charlotte England. All rights reserved.In Chin State, a remote, mountainous and impoverished area to the distant north-west of Yangon, above Rakhine State, and beside India, I’m with Chin Progressive Party lower house candidate Cheery Zahau when she finds out that the electoral commission, which has been accused of bias towards the USDP, have changed the distribution of upper house seats within the constituency. The larger Falam township now has only one seat, while the smaller Hakha township has two. It used to be the other way round.

Zahau is livid, both at the switch and at the incompetence of the NLD who promised to make sure that the reshuffling didn’t go ahead. Zahau explains that in Falam the USDP don’t stand a chance, but in Hakha they might win a seat.

Zahau is also worried about the impact of advanced voting, which will be allowed in Falam for the first time this election. In the 2010 general election, in neighbouring areas that had advanced voting, the advanced votes came in disproportionately for the USDP, compared to on-the-day votes. 

Many advanced votes belong to the army, who vote where they are stationed and almost invariably for the USDP, probably often on their commander’s orders. Zahau says more soldiers have been dispatched to Chin State recently. 

It wouldn’t be hard to cheat on election day anyway.

But then again, it wouldn’t be hard to cheat on election day anyway. In the Falam area, it will be the responsibility of village headmen to bike the ballot boxes from 167 polling stations serving 184 remote villages to Falam town, where the votes will be counted. More than 10,000 observers are allegedly going to be monitoring the election, but the training and neutrality of many of these observers have been questioned. The EU has only sent 150 trained international observers, and they are being denied access in some places.

In areas like Chin State it takes many hours on a motorcycle or by foot to travel between villages on what are little more than footpaths, damaged by landslides. Zahau will only have visited around 130 villages by 8 November, and she says the NLD candidate will have visited about about the same number. If even the candidates haven’t been able to reach all the villages in months of campaigning, it seems implausible that election observers will reach a significant number on the day.

Given the scope for cheating in Chin State, it’s interesting to note that USDP MPs have recently told foreign journalists that the junta are popular there, perhaps to legitimate receiving an increased share of the vote. The area was recently hit by severe flooding and landslides and according to the USDP, the government allegedly won popularity by proffering aid.

But nobody I speak to agrees with this hypothesis. Even in Kale – the jump-off stop at the edge of Chin State, which is the least ethnic and best connected town in the region, and the place worst hit by flooding – there are countless NLD banners, bunting, and flags, and little else. Driving around town, I don’t see any USDP campaign material.

Deeper in Chin State, the red NLD banners gradually fade out, replaced by posters for local ethnic parties, but there’s still no visible support for the USDP. In fact the USDP seem to be particularly unpopular in Chin State, as they are not only representatives of the oppressive Bamar majority, but also the spawn of an army that persecuted the region up until 2010. There has been no justice for the many local women raped by soldiers, which happens less now than before 2010, but is still a problem

 Charlotte England. All rights reserved.

Women gather to listen to Cheery Zahau. Credit: Charlotte England. All rights reserved.In many ways, Zahau is the antithesis to the USDP. She began her journey to politician by walking from Chin village to Chin village, promoting women’s rights and human rights. She did this for more than ten years, largely during military rule, risking arrest and torture. She’s still on the road everyday, explaining the democratic process in village after village, from sunrise to after dark. Zahau’s small, ethnic party don’t take donations, so are funding their campaign themselves, they don’t have the power to reshuffle seats and they don’t have access to state media to promote themselves. 

Zahau is also campaigning in a very different way to the NLD, who, like the USDP, don’t appear to be employing best practice. Their posters are everywhere, but unlike the other parties they don’t feature their local candidates, just Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Bogyoke Aung San. Although it is obviously not against the rules, using nostalgia and near idolatry to motivate voters with little knowledge of the democratic process in Myanmar seems unfair.

Zahau also says that far from trying to educate the electorate, the NLD candidate in Falam is deliberately confusing them, telling voters that Zahau is a USDP mole, that the NLD is the only viable alternative to the current government, and the only party capable of pushing for real democracy. Allegedly, they have even been telling villagers that Zahau is ineligible to represent them because she is too young (she’s 34 and the constitution stipulates that lower house MPs must be at least 25). People who may be linked to the NLD have also been tearing down Zahau’s posters and spreading pernicious, personal rumours about her. 

But in the villages there is solace as well as injustice.

Across the country, female and ethnic minority candidates have reported similar harassment, in many instances from NLD candidates. Meanwhile the NLD have barred prospective Muslim candidates from running altogether.

When you look at the Burmese election from a distance there’s little solace to be found amongst the self-serving military elite clasping on to power, the lapsed ethics of the main opposition party, the quiet western governments continuing to pay up, and the millions of people being offered sham democracy, which in many cases they can’t access anyway. 

But in the villages there is solace as well as injustice. There are ordinary, conscientious and dedicated women citizens like the She Leads volunteers, and there are brave, tenacious ethnic minority and women candidates like Zahau doing their best to change things, despite the obstacles stacked against them. 

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