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News analysis

Poll results a reminder for Aung San Suu Kyi's party

NLD should pay heed to concerns of ethnic minorities, say analysts

Myanmar's ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has put on a brave face since the April 1 by-election, saying that it had performed as expected in its first test at the polls since its landslide victory in the 2015 general election. It won nine of the 19 seats at stake. 

Yet, analysts warn that the road ahead may be rocky if the NLD does not pay heed to voters' sentiments.

The timing of the by-election - to fill seats mainly left vacant by legislators who became Cabinet ministers or in districts where polls were not held in 2015 for security reasons - was less than ideal for the NLD. It took place against the backdrop of growing fears of domination by the ethnic Bamar majority. Weeks before, legislators from the Bamar-dominated NLD pushed through a plan to name a new bridge in Mon state after the late independence hero Aung San, the father of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

The move incensed the Mons - who expected a local name for the Thanlwin River landmark - and triggered concerns among other ethnic minorities over the security of their own local identity.

In addition, polling took place just two days after the NLD government marked its first year in power, amid a deluge of bad press with reports largely echoing disappointment with the slow pace of changes and over-centralisation of power.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party won nine of 19 seats in the by-election.
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party won nine of 19 seats in the by-election. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Ms Suu Kyi defended her government's record in a rare televised address on March 30. She said: "If my very best is not enough for the country and if some other individuals and or organisations are more qualified than us to achieve better results, we would be more than happy and ready to step aside."

The big winner, besides the NLD, was the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which took six seats. The bridge saga cost the NLD a seat it secured in 2015. It went to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military-backed former ruling party, which won two seats in all. All Nationals Democracy Party and Arakan National Party took the remaining two seats.

Reports also contrasted low voter turnout in NLD strongholds like Yangon and the stronger response in ethnic minority areas in Shan, Rakhine and Chin. Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said low turnout could hit the NLD in future, even in areas with no viable alternative.

"(Voters) are not interested to vote for the USDP led by former military generals," he told The Straits Times. "If the governments, parliaments and ruling NLD party fail to make reforms, decentralise and democratise, the voters… (will) stay away from the polling stations."

Some analysts wondered if ethnic minority voters were increasingly turning to local parties they brushed aside in 2015 in a bid to give the NLD the strongest possible mandate after five decades of military rule.

Dr Min Kyi Win, Mon state's Minister for Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, noted that while people in 2015 voted largely based on parties, they were now studying candidates more closely. After the bridge issue, "the ethnic Mon people will not trust the NLD government any more".

There may still be some way to go before the next general election in 2020. But analysts say the NLD should pay more attention to ethnic minority concerns - or face further erosion of its support base.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline 'Poll results a reminder for Suu Kyi's party'. Print Edition | Subscribe