Marginal voices in their own land

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An aerial view of Loikaw, capital of Kayah State, Myanmar

In a sitting room at the outskirts of Loikaw, a man in his early 50s is photocopying a press statement on the latest round of peace talks. A huge map of the Karenni State (officially Kayah State) and a couple of pictures of men in the khaki uniforms decorate the walls around him, .

Supported by solid teak balustrades, this rather grand cottage, set in the centre of a three-acre clearing, is the liaison office of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), a political wing of the ethnic armed forces in Burma’s Kayah State.

“Since March of 2012, we started a peace dialogue with the present government. I worked in the liaison office for the ceasefire agreement since then. I was promoted as the chief representative of KNPP’s liaison office in Loikaw inMarch this year”, said Khu Myee Yae.

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Khu Myee Yae of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)

Born in a small village of the Kayah state capital of Loikaw district, Khu Myee Yae had a 3-year stint as village primary school teacher before joining his friends on the Thai-Burma border to serve in the Karenni revolution.

In the jungle headquarters of Karenni’s guerilla forces, he started his revolutionary duties as an administrative clerk before undergoing military training, which later landed him the general secretary post of the KNPP’s defense department.

Similar to many ethnic armed groups of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, the Karenni peoples have been fighting for independence status since the country gained independence from the British in 1947.

Watching from the sidelines

“We formed a political party in 1957 because we understood that we need one if we want to have political dialogue with the central government”, he said.

Yet, the KNPP cannot compete in this election as the present government still regards it as an ‘illegal organisation’. As change their status into legal entities in the country, KNPP and other ethnic armed forces are required to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), which has yet to reach its final state.

Because of its political status in this upcoming November election, the KNPP has stood back in their controlled areas to let other political parties campaignand the residents vote.

“We will not intervene and disturb this election. Also, we won’t restrict people’s rights to choose their representative if they like to vote. We will observe this electoral process”, he explained.

“Also, our troops and their family members can’t vote because their National Registration Cards are not issued yet as they are regarded as illegal,” he added.

Ethnic political rookies

Concerned about the lack of ethnic representation in the present political landscape, the number of ethnic parties standing for election are growing across seven ethnic states. In Kayah State alone, seven out of eleven parties fielding candidates for this election are ethnic based parties, including parties of ethnicities from the neigbouring states.

Sixty-year old U Mee Yae is representing the All National Democracy Party (AND) vying to win from among 24,000 ballots in Kayah State’s De Maw Soe Township.

Putting the interest of his at the centre of his political ambitions, this first-time candidate is canvassing door to door, village by village, conveying the party’s message of improving the standard of infrastructure and connecting very remote areas with new roads.

With limited resources to campaign, the most U Mee Yae and his colleagues could do is to distribute leaflets.

“We can’t compete with the financial resources and logistical capabilityes of big parties for campaigning. When we request the public spaces for our campaign rallies, we don’t get it easily as local administrators are members of ruling party.” U Mee Yae said.

Similarly, some campaigns and the public rally speeches of high-profile campaigner, Aung San Suu Kyi could bring damage to the political prospects of small ethnic parties like his, he added.

The opposition leader has urged ethnic people to vote for her National League for Democracy to improve their chances of beating the military-backed ruling party during the 8 November election.

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U Mee Yae (center) and Daywar Kyaw Soe (right) during SEAPA’s roundtable discussion in Loikaw.

Daywar Kyaw Soe, a 44-year old businessman is acting as party agent for Kayan National Party (KNP), traveling across the state for the campaign outreach of a candidate he represents.

Registered five years ago as a political party, KNP is aiming to form an alliance with other ethnic parties to enact the laws in parliament that will bring benefits to the ethnic states.

“We are not that much concerned on the influence of ruling party USDP and main opposition party NLD”, he said. “Everywhere, the ruling party always get the upper hand when it comes to the election”.

The party has a very limited budget, running their campaign on a shoestring; therefore, they don’t give any impossible campaign promises, he added.

Instead, KNP members use their knowledge of local customs and dialects as outreach tools for campaign.

Limited Strategies

Resources are not the only constraint for Kayah-based ethnic parties. Also, they have limited strategies in grassroots election campaigning, observed Soe Soe Htet, a Kayah- based journalist.

“Kayah-based ethnic parties are still inexperienced in election campaigning as most of them are first-time candidates. It seems, at least for me, they don’t know how to campaign effectively and eloquently”, she added.

Soe Soe Htet said candidates and parties usually introduce their campaign with basic voter education, and then try to woo local voters with an explanation of the ongoing peace process. They give long explanations on how peace is important in development of conflict-torn States.

Meanwhile, other parties, including the ruling party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are winning the applause with more tangible campaign promises.

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Soe Soe Htet (right) interviews a participant during a break in the roundtable discussions.

Soe Soe Htet herself is a Kayah ethnic and a contributor for The Kantawaddy Times, a bimonthly paper focusing on Kayah State affairs. Soe Soe Htet is adamant to report the November elections from her base and is determined to highlight the campaign movements of Kayah parties in her election coverage.

“I want to write stories of our ethnic parties to raise awareness of their election campaigns and manifestos to our readers. But it is hard to get interesting leads from their campaign’s activities to write interesting stories”, she said.

“Thus, I end up with long interviews with hopeful candidates of Kayah parties to gauge possible interesting leads. In the meantime, high-profile parties are generating a lot of interesting leads for possible good stories.”

Though bordering with its prosperous neighbour Thailand, Kayah State is one of the least developed states in Burma; and its people are looking forward to the days of change toward prosperity.

In addition, the peoples of Kayah State are perplexed with the tortuous path of finalising the nationwide cease fire agreement.

During his recent trip to Loikaw, the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) commander-in-chief was certain of finalising the nationwide cease fire before upcoming election. On the other hand, Khu Myee Yae of the KNPP liaison office is unsure of its timeframe in the near future.

As the election draws near, the campaigns of the ethnic parties have yet to gain traction.

Zaw Win Naing, a grocery store owner and a graduate of Rangoon’s economic University said, “I am thinking to vote the major opposition party, as we want to have something changed”.

“I sympathise with all ethnic-based parties here, but I don’t see any strength in them to push something for change.”