Myanmar Times | In Sittwe, an independent candidate in name only tells of a split within his party

Kayleigh Long |03 Nov 2015 | Myanmar Times

As the election campaign enters its crucial last days in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe, the Arakan National Party looks well placed to claim a significant number of seats in the state assembly, but not without some internal rifts along the way.

In all of Rakhine, there is just one constituency where the ANP is not fielding any candidates: Sittwe 2. Not officially, anyway.

Following an internal power struggle that came to a head in the days after Cyclone Komen in August, the party decided not to put forward anyone.

Former party secretary U Kyaw Zaw Oo explained that the ANP held a primary to decide on its candidate for the seat of Sittwe 2 in the state assembly, which he won. But one of his rivals complained of irregularities.

“So the party executive called a meeting to resolve the matter. The complaint was that the vote was rigged, something like that,” he said. The ANP central executive body has 39 members, but because of the devastation wrought by the cyclone across the state only 16 members were able to attend.

After a split vote, a decision was taken to hold a second primary but U Kyaw Zaw Oo says his rival, whom he declines to name, was apparently opposed to this.

In the end both submitted their applications to the district election commission, but the party said nobody would represent it in Sittwe 2.

“So automatically we have become independents. It is the party leadership decision,” U Kyaw Zaw Oo told The Myanmar Times at his campaign headquarters in Sittwe.

He says there are no differences between his policies and those of the ANP, and if either he or his rival wins, they will probably rejoin the party.

U Kyaw Zaw Oo’s policy platform aligns completely with the ANP’s, which champions the interests of the mostly Buddhist Rakhine majority in the state and is riding a resurgent wave of nationalism.

“First, Arakan nationalism. Second, solidarity. Third, development,” he says.

His campaign posters are most distinctive as his face has become his official logo and will appear on ballot forms, thanks to a miscommunication with the district election commission. The logo he actually wanted, which adorns his T-shirt, is of an ancient Rakhine symbol, a raised fist and a tree.

His vinyl campaign posters also show a picture of him in prison, where he spent 38 days in 2013 on a charge of unlawful assembly. This has done wonders for his name recognition. Asked what he knew about him, one trishaw driver replied, “I think he was a political prisoner.”

U Kyaw Zaw Oo was one of 10 protest organisers arrested across Rakhine State in late 2012, two months after a second spate of communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims left scores dead and over 100,000 displaced. His protest in Sittwe attracted some 5000 people.

“I organised a rally – a street protest – against the government in Sittwe,” he said. “At the time, the communal conflict … had just finished and there was a Turkish NGO that wanted to build buildings for each Bengali family.”

He says the protests were ultimately successful in achieving their aims.

He said he wanted “these people” – referring to Muslim Rohingya who the government officially term ‘Bengalis’ – to be examined to see whether they met the criteria laid out in the 1982 law determining citizenship. “Only after that the government of this country should decide how to treat this kind of people. The final reason is that land ownership is entitled only for citizens, so we protested.”

On the subject of communal violence, he presents a book he wrote. One chapter entitled “Akyabians and Aliens in Arakan: a conversation with a US fact-finding team” appears in English. In it he outlines a Rakhine counter-narrative to what he believes is the prevailing bias toward the Muslim minority in the Western media, and among the United Nations, foreign governments and INGOs.

For U Kyaw Zaw Oo and the ANP it is critical that the state government takes full control of its own affairs and is appointed by the state parliament. This will require constitutional change, as the chief ministers of the states and regions are at present named by the president in Nay Pyi Taw.

Such issues could present major problems to Myanmar’s next government if state assemblies elected on November 8 end up in the hands of opposition ethnic parties, despite the 25 percent of seats being allocated to the military.

“The most serious problems for Rakhine people cannot be resolved by the state government or state parliament. The Rakhine State government is not provided with enough capacity or power to handle the problems we are facing – the Bengali issue, natural resources, resource sharing, land ownership,” he said.

“Why should we accept this constitution? We are not satisfied. We need a voice, we need a place, we need space to improve the situation of our people,” he says, speaking of what he calls the party’s “final goal”.

Sittwe 2 has around 50,000 registered voters and it takes U Kyaw Zaw Oo four hours by motorbike to reach the more remote villages. He has a team of more than 20 volunteers, with his home serving as an office.

His constituency is ethnically Rakhine, with a small number from the Muslim Kaman minority though he does not campaign in their villages. “They will vote for the Kaman candidate,” he says.

U Kyaw Zaw Oo left Sittwe at the age of 23, travelling widely after studying engineering. He worked on Thailand’s Yadanarpon gas pipeline for three years and spent 11 months at The Myanmar Times, reporting on business and crime when the newspaper was under heavy state censorship. He also gave English lessons.

At the time of the 2010 election, he was just back from six months in Afghanistan, where he worked for a US firm. Before that he was in Cambodia.

“I met with other politicians … from Myanmar. At that time we didn’t want to hold a meeting in Sittwe so we went abroad. A safe place,” he explains.

His travels nearly derailed his candidacy due to the legal requirement that candidates must have spent most of the last 10 years in-country. This has prevented some former political exiles from running. His own application was rejected by the district election commission but reinstated on appeal on September 9.

He says his constituents see politics as something very distant.

“They want politicians to be honest.”

He lists education, healthcare and infrastructure as key needs for a state that ranks among the poorest.

“We are entitled to some dignity and some prosperity,” he said.

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