Voting was brisk in the hotly-contested constituency of Pyin Oo Lwin in Mandalay Region on Sunday, where opposition candidates are mounting a strong challenge to ruling party dominance in the military academy town.
National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates hope to beat the region’s powerful chief minister Ye Myint and other ruling party contenders as public discontent over issues such as land grabbing runs high.
Concerns remain, however, over whether the thousands of soldiers stationed here will be able to vote freely.
The NLD’s Dr. Khin Maung Htay, who is running against Ye Myint for a regional parliament seat, said that among approximately 150,000 registered voters in Pyin Oo Lwin Township there are some 13,000 soldiers.
“Maybe 3,000 of them could support the NLD,” he estimated, adding that it was unclear if soldiers and their families would come under pressure from commanders to vote for the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
The opposition has flagged this as an issue in many constituencies across Burma with military bases. In Pyin Oo Lwin, the former colonial hill station, there are a number of bases and institutions, including the Defence Services Academy, an officers’ school that has long produced the country’s military elite.
Khin Maung Htay said the local NLD branch lacked resources to take on a senior USDP member and ex-general like Ye Myint. “To compete with him will be tough, he has power and money,” he said. “I hope if the elections are free and fair, I can win.
“Whenever we are in a village we realise the NLD is popular, but the question is how they will express their confidence through a vote.”
At the NLD’s small local office on Saturday, local party members were being given the last instructions on how to monitor voting and record any irregularities on election day. Staff at the USDP’s local office said candidates were not available for an interview.
A local hotel owner said Pyin Oo Lwin residents were keen to vote and see the NLD win, but added that voter list issues had raised suspicions.
“I went to check my name on the voter list today, it was wrong and so was that of my wife. I showed my national registration card and asked them to change it. They did, but the officials were very aggressive and resisted,” said the man, who asked not be named.
There are two regional parliament seats and a Lower House seat up for grabs in Pyin Oo Lwin – the latter was won by the NLD during the 2012 by-elections. The township is one of five constituencies in eastern Mandalay that represent one Upper House seat.
Aung Thu, an 88 Generation Peace and Open Society activist from Mogok Township, decided to run as an independent candidate for the Upper House seat after he was rejected by the NLD. His campaign manager Micheal Htun said in 2012 some 53,000 votes here went to the NLD and 32,000 to the USDP.
He said that Aung Thu, who was out of town on Saturday, is well-known for helping local communities affected by land grabbing – an issue that is widespread as security forces and expanding agro-industrial plantations have seized tens of thousands of acres of land under army rule.
“Every village in Pyin Oo Lwin has land-grabbing cases,” he said. “They feel like their land was taken by cronies and the military – none of them will vote USDP.”
In recent weeks, Ye Myint has been visiting villages affected by land disputes and made promises that he would return land, while in some cases he reportedly helped to give back several hundred acres.
Zee Bin Gyi, a village on the western edge of the Shan hills, had a visit by the chief minister early last month, according to U Sone, a 78-year-old village elder. He lost 300 acres of farmland in 1984 when authorities seized a total of 3,000 acres from the village for the construction of a national police training institute and a firefighters’ training school.
Sitting beside his old wooden house, around which grew towering palm and tamarind trees, U Sone said Ye Myint’s promises were “just political talk,” and had not impressed villagers.
“The villagers here will not vote USDP. I urged them to consider the future of the younger generation and remember what happened before,” he said.