On November 8, Myanmar votes for a new parliament. What do the parties stand for and what can they change? An interview with Sui Khar, Joint Secretary-General of the Chin National Front.
Heinrich Böll Foundation: Dr Sui Khar, how do you assess the preparations of ethnic political parties for the upcoming elections on November 8?
Dr Sui Khar: They have been well prepared for the elections for a long time. The Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF) in particular, an alliance of 20 ethnic political parties, has been holding election preparation meetings every three months for the past three years. More than 10 ethnic political parties in the state of Chin have also been strongly coordinating with each other to counter the two major parties – the National League for Democracy (NLD)1 and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)2 – as their common rivals. This gives them high expectations of winning the elections in the regions. We can also see that parties are taking advantage of recent flooding and landslides3 for their election campaigns by providing humanitarian assistance to local communities. I would say that ethnic parties already started a “silent” election campaign in early 20154.
What about preparations in the conflict areas?
I believe that it will not be possible to hold elections in most conflict areas. This will play into the hands of the military. Whether the elections are held or not, the military will send its 25 per cent quota of representatives from those areas to the parliament. This is why I think elections might not be held in conflict areas.
As one of the ethnic political leaders, what do you think of the moral, legal, and political legitimacy of the elections?
Political parties and the Union Election Commission (UEC) are well prepared to ensure that the elections will be free and fair. For example, political parties signed an election Code of Conduct and guidelines to ensure ethical behaviour on polling day. Also, the fact that the UEC has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Carter Center and the European Union and is allowing international observers to monitor and watch the elections closely can be regarded as an indicator of serious preparations for the elections.
Thus, I believe the ruling party will not have a chance to engage in vote-rigging to win the elections, like they did in 2010. But surprisingly, both the USDP and the military are very confident about forming the new government. I cannot say whether they plan to play some kind of trick. Unlike in 2010, the UEC has also made much effort to set up legal mechanisms. For example, candidates whose applications were rejected some months ago were reaccepted by the UEC after revisions were made in accordance with legal procedures. Among those was a Chin candidate competing in the state of Rakhine.
Do you think ethnic political parties would align with the USDP or the NLD in order to achieve their political ambitions?
This seems very clear to me if we look at the election preparations of different parties. The NLD already has its old ethnic ally, which is the United Nationality Alliance (UNA). Despite some minor disagreements between the two parties, it is obvious that the UNA will go with the NLD if the NLD needs a collation partner to form a new government. In contrast, I assume that the NBF would probably align with the USDP. The reason being is that the NLD had neither officially engaged with ethnic groups nor raised ethnic issues during the past three years. In addition, the NBF would not be reluctant to form a government with the USDP, as they seem more capable and committed of addressing ethnic issues, given the experiences of the past five years.
What are the campaign agendas and political ambitions of the ethnic parties?
A constitutional change or amendment will be the political priority of most ethnic political parties. They will campaign for a constitutional amendment based on the principles of federalism, equal rights of ethnic peoples, and infrastructural development in the ethnic regions. More specifically, the social, cultural, and economic rights of ethnic peoples will be their top priority. For example, they will demand the protection and promotion of ethnic languages and cultures.
What kind of outcome can we expect for ethnic parties in the November elections?
The outcome of the elections will be different in each region and state. For example, in the state of Chin there are more than 10 ethnic political parties. However, they will not compete directly against one another in the same constituencies, but mostly divide the constituencies among themselves. Each party has areas or constituencies where they have a stronghold. Neither the NLD nor the USDP has a comprehensive policy or political message in relation to ethnic peoples. The NLD could dominate in central Myanmar, but not in the ethnic regions. Thus, I believe ethnic parties will win many of their constituencies.
What are your thoughts on how influential ethnic parties will be in forming the new government?
It is obvious that ethnic parties will not be able to form a government, even if they win by a landslide in their regions. However, they will play an important role in forming the new government, because I believe that no single party will win enough votes to have a majority. For example, suppose that either the NBF or the UNA wins 15 per cent of the seats, then they will be in the role of king-maker. They will not become the king but the king-maker.
What are the main challenges and opportunities for ethnic parties from previous experiences?
The November elections will be significant and will be more challenging because, unlike in the 2010 elections, the NLD and the UNA – winners of the 1990 elections – will be competing. The greatest challenge for the ethnic parties that competed in 2010 will be their performance in parliament during the last five years. So far, they have had no significant achievement except passing the Ethnic Rights Protection Law5. On the other hand, they could not stop the Protection of Race and Religion law from being passed – a law that most ethnic peoples do not support6. However, the elections also give great opportunities to ethnic parties as pivotal actors in forming a new government.
How could the elections impact the peace process?
The public worries that the election results could reverse the current process. But I do not believe so. If we take a closer look at the current ceasefire negotiations or peace process, it is not closely related to the elections. These are ceasefire negotiations between the military and ethnic armed organisations. If the USDP forms the next government, the peace process will continue smoothly. However, some delay is to be expected if the NLD wins the elections, as NLD representatives will take time to deal with the military regarding the peace process. The question will be how willing the military will be to cooperate with the NLD. I am a bit sceptical about this. The whole peace process could get stuck unless the new government and the military can establish common ground.
What are your expectation regarding the political reform process?
First, the new government will focus on clean governance and address corruption issues more effectively. Second, there will be more power-sharing between the central government and state and regional governments7. Thein Sein’s government practiced a completely centralised government system for the first three years after he took office in 2011, and all decisions were made by the central government in Naypitaw. Eventually, more decision-making powers were shared with state and regional governments starting in mid-2014. For example, decisions regarding development projects that cost less than one billion Kyats8 are now made by state and regional governments. I believe the next government will foster decentralisation. In addition, many laws will be revised or changed, such as the foreign investment law, which is regarded to favour only investors.
So what do you predict for Myanmar’s future?
We all believe that the NLD will win the elections. But the power struggle and competition within the USDP in August9 somehow leaves me sceptical about the future political climate. This could have been an indicator of the USDP and military’s preparation to form the next government, regardless of the November election results. It is important to observe which direction Myanmar’s political climate is heading.
Dr Sui Khar, thank you very much for this interview.
Interview by Rual Lian Thang, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Myanmar Office.
This article is part of our dossier: Elections in Myanmar.
 The main opposition party of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
 The ruling party affiliated with the military.
 This monsoon season has brought disastrous floods in several Myanmar regions, including the state of Chin.
 Officially, parties were only allowed to start their campaigns after September 8.
 The law was passed in 2015 to protect the rights of ethnic communities. Inter alia, an Ethnic Affairs Ministry is envisaged to be formed under the new law, which would allow minorities to study their language and literature, as well as practice their cultures and traditions.
 The Protection of Race and Religion law has been criticised by ethnic groups and international human rights organisations as protecting only the main Bama culture and Buddhism. Some striking elements under the law: people will have to seek government approval for converting to other religions; it imposes discriminatory obligations on non-Buddhist men if they want to marry Buddhist women; and it aims at regulating birth intervals, up to 36 months between two births in some areas (areas are not specified but this could be used in a discriminatory manner).
 The difference between “states” and “regions” is not an administrative issue. Some ethnic regions are denominated as “states” if they are predominantly inhabited by one ethnic group.
 About €700,000.
 Party leader Shwe Mann, who was believed to engage more with opposition parties, and the NLD in particular, was ousted probably by party hardliners.