After the election: Reflections from Kayan Women’s Organisation
by Bethia Burgess
In the days after Myanmar’s 2020 election, I spoke to ethnic women around Myanmar about their perspectives on the results and the issues that are important to them as a new government is formed. This is the second of a short series where I share their reflections.
There was palpable excitement amongst the Kayan Women’s Organisation women in the lead-up to the election
In Kayah State, home to ethnic Karenni nationalities, hopes were high for a strong performance by the ethnic parties. Having worked hard to form an alliance between the two Karenni parties – the Kayah State Democratic Party (KySDP) and the Kayan National Party (KNP) – to prevent vote splintering, there was hope that they would perform strongly against the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Representatives of Kayan Women’s Organisation (KyWO) explained their reasons for supporting the KsSDP-KNP alliance after a difficult five years under the NLD.
“In the 2015 election, the NLD won in a landslide as we voted against the oppression and tyranny of the military dictatorship,” say KyWO women.
“At the time, local ethnic organisations, youth organisations, and democratic politicians were full of hope and belief that the rights of ethnic people and citizens that had been denied for decades would finally be upheld by the NLD.
“In Karenni State, however the last five years have built up resentment against the [NLD] government, which has not served Karenni peoples well and instead promoted the Burman national agenda.”
The grievances with the previous administration are complex.
Protests against the NLD’s erection of commemorative statues for the late General Aung San made headlines over the last few years, but the arrests of peaceful protestors are just one facet of the distrust that has built up since 2015.
“On the other hand, there are many large-scale development projects [such as dams] that were undertaken without public consent despite their potential dangers; there are mega-investments and land grabs; the education system does not reflect our national context; and the [NLD] government has not stood with the people against political violence and armed conflict.
“While we voted for the NLD in 2015, this year we had more trust in the ethnic parties to handle our state’s issues and affairs like ethnic rights, communal rights and other public affairs on our own.”
As a Kayan women’s organisation, gender equality was also a factor in their support of the KySDP-KNP alliance, due to their ability to work closely with these parties to promote their vision and encourage ethnic women candidates in their campaigns.
“We supported the ethnic political parties to be able to create a system of decision-making which supported women’s rights and their participation in politics and the peace process,” KyWO representatives say.
But political demands took a backseat to immediate concerns for livelihoods.
In the end, say KyWO women, “the post-election results didn’t turn out as we had hoped.”
Despite improving on their 2015 performance – up from zero to 20 per cent of the vote – KyWO women were disheartened that KySDP-KNP were unable to secure a majority.
“KySDP-KNP competed in all 34 constituencies and won in eight constituencies, but only two women were elected.”
In a context of great economic disadvantage, they believe that the immediate needs of constituents were what drove the NLD’s overall success in Kayah State (winning 20 of the 34 seats).
According to KyWO staff who have analysed the results, “public political awareness has improved since the 2015 elections, but we still need to do more work for awareness on political concepts.
“People cast their votes for the major parties, not based on the parties’ policies or the candidates’ political agendas, but out of concern for their livelihoods and immediate needs.”
The ethnic parties also struggled to win the trust of the public in some constituencies, where KyWO believe that false propaganda was used by the major parties to discredit the ethnic candidates. The blow is bitter considering the lack of consequences for wrongdoers in the previous administration. For instance, despite being impeached for misusing state funds, NLD candidate and former Kayah State Chief Minister L Phaung Sho won his seat with nearly three quarters of the vote.
Amidst the disappointment, there are lessons for 2025
“Although the 2020 general election didn’t turn out as we had hoped, we have learned some lessons to prepare us for 2025,” say KyWO representatives.
“It was positive to see that although the state-based ethnic political parties are small, they were able to compete strongly with major parties, performing better than other major parties.
“Public acceptance and support were overall much stronger than in 2015. Other strengths of the campaign were the unification of small ethnic political parties – the KySDP-KNP – and the ability for women’s participation from both ethnic political parties which was again stronger than other major political parties.”
The outcome has encouraged the KyWO members to continue their political awareness-raising campaigns across Karenni communities, to encourage greater support for Karenni nationalities in the next election.
They also see some lessons for Karenni political parties to implement over the next five years.
“The ethnic political parties need to build trust with the public at the grassroots level,” they say. “The successful candidates from this election can do this by showing that their actions and performance are representative of the public.”
Their advice for ethnic political parties wishing to improve on their results is to analyse and learn from this year’s experience.
“They must prepare to set better political strategies for the next election if they have the hope of representing the Karenni people in government.