Myanmar’s elections pose challenges for minority parties

Myanmar’s diverse ethnic minority parties face great challenges after Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party won majority of votes

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A supporter takes a picture of a graffiti of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in front of the National League for Democracy (NLD) head office in Yangon November 13, 2015.

Myanmar's diverse ethnic minority parties were counting their losses Saturday after Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party won a landslide victory in historic polls.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has so far scooped 80 percent of elected seats in polls that promise to dramatically redraw the political landscape in a nation stifled for decades under the grip of army rule.

The party sailed past the threshold needed to secure an absolute parliamentary majority Friday, giving it a massive popular mandate with only a few results still trickling out.

Parties representing Myanmar's myriad ethnic minority groups have emerged as major losers in the vote, taking just 10 percent of seats in the combined parliament and losing out to the NLD even in regional legislatures.

"Ethnic parties won very few seats. We did not want to see this but it has happened," said Aye Maung, chairman of Arakan National Party (ANP), who lost his own seat to the NLD in violence-torn western Rakhine state.

He voiced concerns over whether "ethnic voices can be heard" now in the new parliament.

Suu Kyi, 70, has said her party supports a federal future and has made ethnic affairs and peace a central pillar of her party manifesto for Myanmar, where ethnic minority groups have fought decades-long wars for greater autonomy.

But she was criticised in the run-up to the polls for failing to reach out to minority parties.

Thein Sein's quasi-civilian government has inked ceasefires with a clutch of ethnic armed groups, but several major conflicts persist.

The military launched airstrikes against rebels in eastern Shan state this week even as votes were counted, according to the United Nations.

Authorities cancelled elections in seven national parliament constituencies -- all in Shan -- as well as suspending voting in swathes of northern Kachin state and Karen state in the east.

- Peace hopes -

Manam Tu Ja, chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party, said a change in government could ease the conflict.

"We will continue to negotiate with the NLD because we are on the same side, working towards democracy," he told AFP.

But he raised concerns that the interests of ethnic areas, which contain a wealth of natural resources, could be sidelined by the NLD, historically seen as a party of the ethnic Bamar majority.

Myanmar is a patchwork of ethnic identities with over 130 officially-recognised minority groups, many with distinct languages and cultures.

The ANP -- Arakan is another word for Rakhine -- is one of the strongest ethnic minority parties in parliament.

It is the voice of nationalist Buddhists in its volatile state, where religious clashes in 2012 left scores dead and displaced tens of thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims.

The party was confident of a clean sweep in Rakhine -- after a shock move by the government earlier this year stripped around half a million Rohingya of their voting rights -- but has secured only 15 seats so far.

Suu Kyi has said she will protect Muslims in the state, despite appearing to bow to growing Buddhist nationalism by fielding no candidates from the minority.

The Nobel laureate has pledged to rule Myanmar regardless of a junta-era constitution that bars her from the presidency, a legally uncertain plan that could stir problems with the army.

The military retains huge power with a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for unelected soldiers, and military appointees in charge of key security ministries.

But both the army chief and President Thein Sein, whose reforms have opened the country to the world, have vowed to respect the election result.