In Myanmar, local candidates want to fix more than potholes

YANGON, Myanmar — Municipal elections tend to hinge on issues like traffic congestion and trash collection — both of which are growing concerns on the aging streets of Myanmar’s fast-growing former capital.

But Win Cho, a 56-year-old social activist and businessman, has a loftier agenda as he runs for a seat on the Yangon City Development Committee, or YCDC, in citywide elections on Dec. 27. The vote is the first local one in more than five decades that won’t be controlled by the country’s military and a small but important precursor to the landmark national elections that are scheduled for late next year.

Fresh off of a two-month stint in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison for violating a law on public assembly while protesting electricity price increases, he is promising to ensure transparency and accountability after years of backroom rule by military appointees.

“I want to prove that ordinary citizens can do things that a [military] colonel has traditionally been doing,” Win Cho, dressed in a plaid shirt and a traditional blue longyi (sarong), said through a translator at his comfortable apartment in Yangon’s Dagon township after a morning of campaigning in early December.

Prison time is a badge of honor in Myanmar’s activist community, and instead of the staid, mug shots that many other candidates have plastered on rickety telephone poles and nearby Buddhist shrines, his campaign fliers feature photos of him triumphantly emerging from prison.

Featuring candidates including businesspeople, activists, former professors and civil servants, the municipal elections are shaping up as a rare opportunity for new faces to break into the political fold in a country that lacks a professional political class.

Win Cho, a father of two, claimed with a smile that military-intelligence officers are watching him on Facebook and argued that he needs to show that “opposition figures are not just interested in criticizing the government.”

The elections are also a small test of the country’s preparedness for elections, how much freedom the government will allow in local governance — and what that may mean for politics throughout the nation.

Candidates complain that many residents of Myanmar’s biggest city don’t know the municipal election is happening — or think the YCDC is just a tool of the military. While the municipal elections will be far more open than in the past, several seats will still be guaranteed for ruling party appointees, and a junta-era mindset prevailed in the initial planning.

The YCDC initially proposed that only 1.5 percent of the Yangon population be able to vote in the municipal polls — with government employees and convicts among the many ineligible to vote — to save costs. It was only after one independent opposition member of the regional parliament, Nyo Nyo Thin, raised objections that the local electoral commission backed down and agreed to allow one vote per household, which will mean about 800,000 votes. Campaign signage has technically been banned by the YCDC electoral commission, and candidates aren’t even allowed to belong to political parties.

The municipal elections are “a sign of democratic representation in Myanmar, but the problem is [whether] the YCDC election will be free and fair and if people can freely vote,” said Yan Myo Thein, a local political analyst.

Free and fair?
By contrast, there’s no sense of apathy when it comes to next year’s national elections, the first since 2010 polls that were largely dismissed by international observers. The political maneuvering leading up to the national election is the talk of the country. But there are huge challenges facing Myanmar’s much-celebrated democratic transition.

Nobel laureate and longtime dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent much of the 1990s and 2000s under house arrest, was elected to a seat in Parliament in a 2012 special election that critics viewed as flawed, but also a step in the right direction. And the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, which inherited power from the former military junta in 2011, is promising a transparent poll next year.

But the USDP has ruled out amending the country’s military-written 2008 constitution before the 2015 election. That means that a clause prohibiting the widely popular Suu Kyi from claiming the presidency, as well as a clause guaranteeing the military a 25 percent share of Parliament, will remain in place for the time being. While rumors are rife that she will cut a power-sharing deal with Shwe Mann, the USDP’s parliamentary speaker, nothing is clear.

The USDP still effectively controls the country’s rusty electoral apparatus and its election commission, and a mixture of concerns about the government’s capacity — and its commitment to making the poll free and fair — persist.

In a November visit to Myanmar, President Obama, who has expanded ties with this former pariah state, urged President Thein Sein to hold the election on time. Outside the spotlight, U.S. officials have been lowering expectations about the election, and urging the government to make it as transparent as possible. “Being perceived as holding a credible election by your people,” is hugely important, said one American official, who agreed to speak on background.

Credibility is a significant issue at the local level as well. Nyo Nyo Thin, who is giving campaign advice to candidates like Win Cho and Susanna Hla Hla Soe, an ethnic Karen activist, said that the local-election commission is trying, but simply doesn’t have the necessary experience or the funding.

“They have no volunteers to collect voter lists. They just guess — they don’t go door to door,” she said, noting that there are similar shortcomings at the national level.

And she noted that many candidates from the main opposition party, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, “don’t know how to do campaigns.”

Suu Kyi remains widely popular, but her party has failed to cultivate a new generation of leaders.

The military and the USDP remain unpopular. Yet for decades they’ve been the only game in town, with opposition figures barred from holding office. Yan Myo Thein, the political analyst, said that members of the ruling party are watching the municipal election “to test the waters before the national elections, [regarding whether] they are strong or not.”

Jailhouse celebrity
Many of the former student activists who were imprisoned after a military crackdown in 1988 — and only released recently — have thus far stayed away from electoral politics. Win Cho, on the other hand, has been eyeing such an opportunity for years.

He was at sea during the 1988 protests, working as a sailor for a state-owned shipping line. He spent a month in prison — and was banned for three years from the industry — for leading a protest in front of the Burmese embassy in Singapore.

Win Cho soon got involved in labor politics, and was arrested with about 20 other activists during a demonstration. But he was the only one acquitted — raising suspicions among his fellow activists, he said, that he was working with military intelligence. Less interested in advocating regime change than in pushing for more incremental reforms, he soon embarked on a business career and waited for better political times to come.

As the government started loosening its grip in 2010, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Regional Parliament before beginning a series of protests over everything from land grabbing by the military to energy prices, which landed him in prison three times. Indeed, at first the local electoral board rejected his application after he didn’t note his recent prison time in his application to run.

Because of his time in prison, Win Cho enjoys some local celebrity. But he worries that local election officials are undercounting — and underinforming — voters.

In a Myanmar public-opinion survey commissioned by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation and released Dec. 12, 82 percent of respondents could not identify any of the branches of the Myanmar government.

“If people were politically aware, like in the U.S.,” he’d be sure to win, he said.

Kyaw Thu, director of Paung Ku, a local civil-society group, is less worried about whether candidates like Win Cho win and more about what they learn about getting elected.

“It’s a pilot to test ourselves,” he said, noting that in nearby Indonesia, newly elected President Jokowi Widodo got his start in municipal government, as mayor of the city of Surakarta. “This is not for the seat; it’s for the process.”


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