With a date now set for elections in Burma, the 40 parties that have been approved to run are out on the campaign trail. A brief look at candidate lists however shows a conspicuous lack of women in Burmese politics, a sign of a sexually conservative society and heightened male chauvinism, says Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein. She is the daughter of former prime minister, Kyaw Nyein, and will run as a candidate for the Democratic Party alongside the other ‘two princesses’ of Burma, Nay Ye Ba Swe and Mya Than Than Nu.
How are preparations for the elections? What is the environment like?
I have been campaigning in my constituency – Gyobingauk township in Pegu division – on a very low profile for the last two months. There have been many obstacles. They [the junta] are becoming stricter day by day. The rules and regulations are getting tougher. It is very difficult for us to campaign.
In the beginning, our members had to submit their national registration cards (NRC) to the authorities, who in turn ran checks and interrogated our leaders. They asked them whether I had bribed them and demanded reasons for having joined me. This scared many people regarding the consequences of joining our party. Despite all this fear, I have been campaigning in my constituency on and off. A few weeks ago, we were allowed to talk in the monasteries – I could talk to the farmers in their houses. But now with the monsoon setting in, it is that time of the year when farmers need to be in their fields to grow their paddy. It’s become more difficult to find a suitable time.
The rules also state that we can’t gather more than 50 people at a time; we have to inform the authorities seven days ahead of the scheduled meeting. We have to consider the weather as well. We need to send trucks to pick up people from various villages. But we never know when it’s going to rain, that adds to the complications.
Do you think not being allowed to campaign freely is going to affect the election results?
Of course. Some of the parties, which are proxies for them [junta], have been around since two years while we were formed very recently. They have covered quite a lot of ground and are very much ready – finance and other resources – for the elections on 7 November. But it is a headache for the other smaller parties like ours.
Was it a difficult choice to go ahead with contesting elections especially after the National League for Democracy (NLD) backed out?
I don’t think we should shy away from the elections. This military government has been around for more than half a century. We know how they have treated us in the past, and how it might not change if we don’t grab the chair now. So we need to take part in this election, irrespective of it being free and fair. It’s better than sitting in your house and day dreaming. However, it is heartbreaking to hear some members of the NLD declaring, ‘please don’t vote’. The rules are very, very complicated. If people don’t vote, they [military government] will win.
What kind of progress has your party made so far?
Most of our party members have been active since the 1988 uprising. We also participated in the 1990 elections, but we didn’t succeed. This time we have made quite a bit of progress, given the time and money constraints. The most important problem for us is the shortage of funds – the military has set the registration fee very high, at 500,000 kyat [US$500] per candidate, to keep away as many people as possible. Initially, we had about 150 members who had submitted their applications, but now with the registration fee being so high, half of them have dropped out, others will use their personal funds to contest. We were trying to raise funds, but again the deadline for submission of candidate names was brought closer, yet another setback for us.
What do you expect out of these elections, apart from them being free and fair? What do you think is going to be the realistic outcome?
I have been going around the country meeting the common people, and I have come to realise that the Burmese people hate the junta and the proxy parties a lot. They are ready to vote for any party except the proxies. So we have a very good chance of winning. Apart from the problems of funding, I believe that whoever contests will win, if they aren’t proxies. But again, there are so many places where we cannot even compete because the proxy parties have a huge advantage over us. That will give them the lion’s share.
But I think it is definitely better than having a government with only the army. Including civilians is going to bring about some changes. The results will be promising. Of course, there are some rules which we oppose but we are hopeful. Basically, we really don’t care which of the parties win, as long as they aren’t the proxy parties.
There are many proxy parties which are in disguise as well. But the masses can tell them apart from the real candidates. Burmese people are very smart. They have been under this regime for so many years. We don’t have any newspapers which will inform us of what is happening. These campaigns are the only way of knowing who is who.
Even if the elections are a success, do you think more complications will arise because of ethnic nationalities demanding autonomy and other rights?
Let’s hope that ethnic groups will win in their regions. I definitely feel that they will. But of course, there are three or four proxy parties also fighting under ethnic banners. But the minorities hate them so much. Let’s hope that the pro-democratic parties will win.
Do you think the West adding pressure from the outside is going to change anything in terms of the way the elections are conducted, or the way results are tackled?
(Laughs) Let me tell you – this government, they don’t care about the outside world. Nobody can understand this, probably. We have enough natural resources in the country, which we ourselves can’t enjoy. But they [junta] are quite rich in their own capacity. They can invest money in manipulating the system. If they don’t care about their own people, they won’t care about anybody on the outside.
If you do make it to the Parliament, what changes would you bring about?
All Burmese people, excluding their [military authorities’] families, are very poor. It is heartbreaking to confess the truth. We aren’t close to our expectations of livelihood. We are very poor in every aspect. If you go to the hospitals, we don’t have medicines or anything. So if you don’t have the money, you will die. Nobody would like to die because they don’t have money. But in this country, people have to die because they don’t have money. Education is another problem. My grandchildren are suffering from lack of education. But all the families from the cream of Burmese military and their children are attending international schools and then they go abroad to attend university.
In every field, education, health etc., we need to change and we hope that we will be able to bring about change. Of course, you cannot change this abruptly, but in five to ten years’ time, we will change the system and the government.
What is it like to carry your father’s legacy forward? Does it help having a strong background or does it weigh you down because of all the expectations?
My father was a true politician and his thoughts were always considerate about the country and the people. And he handed over this big burden on my shoulders. I am proud to be his daughter. My siblings are in America and whether they like it or not, they cannot come back and work for the country. I am the eldest daughter of my father; I take it as my duty to do whatever for the country and its people that my father loved so much.
Would it have been more difficult to reach where you are today, had it not been for your background, given that you are a woman?
Everybody who hears my father’s name showers me with affection. In fact, they worship him – of course not to the extent of [independence hero] General Aung San – but they really appreciate his doings. In every part of the country that I have been to, I am happy to know that they accepted my father and they are helping me because I am his daughter.
Why don’t we see more women politicians or candidates for these elections? We do see many women politically active in protests but it doesn’t translate into leadership. Why?
There are quite a few women candidates in the coming elections from different walks of life, but not too many. When it comes to leadership, like in any other Asian country – for instance Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan or Indira Gandhi in India – it is quite easy for me, and I consider myself lucky, than any other ordinary Burmese woman.
How many women politicians do you have in your party?
There aren’t many. Of the 150 members, we have barely 10 women. Apart from me, we have former Prime Minister U Nu’s daughter, May Than Than Nu; former Prime Minister during the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League’s (AFPFL) rule U Ba Swe’s daughter, Nay Ye Ba Swe. Burmese women are more housewives more than anything else. The male members are normally leaders, the women always considers themselves mothers and daughters rather than leaders of their families.
There are many male chauvinists in Burma, but I don’t care. Being a woman politician in Burma, you have to meet with a lot of obstacles but now as Burmese women are more educated than we were earlier, the society has come to understand that women are capable. They have to change their outlook. I do not accept male chauvinism.