Myanmar election

All-out fight between 2 political giants

National League for Democracy supporters at a rally outside the Yangon Central Railway Station on Thursday. Just south of Yangon, in the densely populated Irrawaddy Delta, the election boils down to a two-horse race between the USDP and NLD, which ar
National League for Democracy supporters at a rally outside the Yangon Central Railway Station on Thursday. Just south of Yangon, in the densely populated Irrawaddy Delta, the election boils down to a two-horse race between the USDP and NLD, which are the only parties contesting all 92 constituencies for parliamentary and local assembly seats, in an acid test for the ruling party.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The people of Myanmar will vote tomorrow in an election many see as an important step to the country's transformation from an isolated military dictatorship to a more open society that seeks to attract foreign investment and tourists. The Straits Times' Indochina bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh is in Myanmar to report on the landmark polls.

A modest crowd has gathered in a simple monastery building in the key battleground constituency of Hinthada in Ayeyarwady, the delta region south of Yangon.

But some of those attending the rally are fiercely loyal: They owe their eyesight to the tall man speaking.  Mr Htay Oo, 64, joint chairman of Myanmar's ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and incumbent MP for this constituency, has been, for years, sponsoring free eye treatment for people.

In Myanmar's general election tomorrow, he is one of a top slate of party candidates vying for seats in the populous delta region in the country's rice bowl.

The number of people who turn out to vote tomorrow will be a factor in these elections. If the ruling party holds on to some seats in the delta, where it is fielding high-profile candidates, it could save some face. If it does not, the delta may prove its undoing, and several of its top figures could fall.

Many of the ruling party's candidates are contesting in their home towns, where, under military rule in 2010 - with the National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotting the polls - they won handily in the last election.

This year's polls, however, could be the moment of truth. The NLD is back, and its candidates are going head-to-head in every constituency in the densely populated delta.

Nothing quite matches the delta in terms of its political significance in this election. Nine members from the USDP's central executive committee are contesting in the region - more than in any other. All but one were born and raised in the area; most have held ministerial portfolios in previous administrations.

President Thein Sein is not running, but his home town is also in the delta, which has produced a long line of luminaries including Myanmar's first prime minister U Nu, and the United Nations' first secretary-general U Thant.

Several parties are in the fray, but it boils down to a two-horse race. Only the USDP and NLD are contesting all 92 constituencies for parliamentary and local assembly seats.

The USDP is optimistic. Mr Htay Oo, a former brigadier-general, has poured resources into schools, and the free medical clinics. U Myint Thein, a rice and bean trader, and textile shop owner in Hinthada, said the party could win.

 

Out of around 250,000 eligible voters in the constituency, around 70 per cent live in rural areas. The party has long courted this group with development projects and has been active in disaster relief in the flood-prone region. The USDP supporter said the party may hold its own with a 50-50 split with the NLD in the cities, but in rural areas, it would win 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the vote. He echoed the USDP line, saying the country needed a "slow transition'' to a full democracy.

He said: "I would like it to be quicker, but I don't want to see damage in the process. And I am worried that if there is no strategy or good governance in an NLD government, the military will come back to power."

It will not be easy. There is pent-up emotional support for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the USDP is also battling a ghost - that of her father, the independence hero and martyr, General Aung San, who was gunned down in the Secretariat in Yangon when she was only two, and remains a pervasive national icon.

Said Mr Htay Oo, in an interview: "Even now, some people think the NLD is General Aung San's party. I have to explain that it is not.

"Most people know who has been helping them."

During his speeches, he stands tall over audiences and lectures them like an avuncular schoolmaster. He emphasises the organisational strength and clout of the party in delivering improvements in people's lives, with things like roads, schools, transport, and healthcare.

But the emotional appeal of the NLD runs deep. A shy shoe shop owner in the market, Ms May Zin Oo, 30, said she knows little about politics, but will vote for the NLD "because of bogyoke (martyr) Aung San".

In the next shop, sitting among an array of bags and suitcases, the owner, Ms Lei Lei Soe, said she admires Mr Htay Oo and President Thein Sein. But she supports the NLD because "if they win, the country will develop".

The NLD office in Hinthada is a ramshackle two-storey house with stained walls and a wooden floor. A mouse shimmies down a length of rope hanging from a window.

There are the obligatory pictures of Gen Aung San, and it is from here that the party's candidate, Mr Khin Maung Yi, 71, a lean and wiry retired government school teacher, is mounting a challenge against Mr Htay Oo.

This is the first time he is contesting an election. "I have no expectations," said the soft-spoken man. "But people here are really into the NLD because of Aung San Suu Kyi. I just want a free and fair election. If it is free and fair, I believe we will win."

Sitting on his rickshaw a few streets away, Mr Tin Aung Naing, 52, remembered how he voted for Mr Htay Oo in 2010, when there was no contest from the NLD.

"He repaired the roads, and he had special medical camps," he said. "He has done good work. But, I will still vote for the NLD."

Mr Tin Aung Naing also remembered the polls in 1990, when the NLD won the seat here - but the military did not recognise the election results. "I don't think the government respects elections, but I will still vote," he said.

"This time, it may be different."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2015, with the headline 'All-out fight between 2 political giants'. Print Edition | Subscribe