Faced with the emblems of five political parties, all of which featured a gold-coloured peacock against a red backdrop, Myint Yi, a teashop owner in downtown Rangoon, was stumped when asked which of the parties they represented.
After a few minutes of looking through different logos, she correctly identified the party logo of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), a fighting peacock next to a single white star.
“I didn’t know there are so many parties that have white stars and peacocks during this election,” she said.
When Burma goes to the polls on 8 November, it seems likely that many voters will be equally confused, given the range of party logos that will appear on ballot papers, many of which are indistinguishable from each other.
Research of 93 parties registered with the Union Election Commission shows many parties have resorted to similar symbols and names: five using a fighting peacock, four using a dancing peacock and two parties with a bamboo hat.
There are 33 parties that use the word ‘amyotha’ (meaning national) in their names, three that use ‘new society’ in their names and two that use ’88’.
Numerous parties have chosen a red backdrop and many use a varying number of white stars.
NLD-LIKE LOGOS ABOUND
The fighting peacock was the well-known symbol of the 1930s All-Burma Students Union led by independence hero Aung San, the father of Suu Kyi, and it has been popular in Burma ever since.
Among the array of similar symbols and colours, many party logos seem to resemble that of the NLD. “They want to confuse voters, it was done intentionally,” remarked Myint Yi, revealing a distrust of the military-linked government that remains common among the Myanmar public more than four years after direct military rule ended.
Strikingly, the logo of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — a green backdrop with a red corner and a white star — has been emulated by no one.
“The main responsibility here is with the Union Election Commission,” said Yan Myo Thein, a well-known commentator on Burmese political affairs.
“The NLD has been around since it was formed in 1988. If the Commission would ask the parties with similar logos and flags to change according to regulations, there won’t be problems such as this,” he added.
Nyan Win, a member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee, acknowledged that the similarity of the logos to the NLD’s could pose a problem for some of Burma’s voters, many of whom are poorly educated and may rely on symbols to help them identify parties.
“When we conducted voter education talks the trainers explained this matter to the public,” he said.
Ye Htun, chairman of the 88 Generation Student Youths Party (Union of Myanmar), said the Union Election Commission had failed to take action to regulate the logos in order to help voters, though he claimed officials had rejected any symbols that looked too similar to that of the USDP.
“It’s like they accept any logo if you just add a star here, or change the colour of the peacock there,” said Ye Htun.
But Khin Zaw Tun, a Rangoon Division election commission official, said the commission had no responsibility to regulate party logos and ensure they differ.
“This issue concerns the parties themselves as they are the ones who will receive the votes. They designed these logos themselves. What can we do?” he told Myanmar Now.
STRUGGLING TO DIFFERENTIATE
For small parties, already struggling with funding and a lack of manpower, the numerous similar symbols makes it difficult to differentiate themselves in the first election in decades to be contested by all main opposition parties.
Thu Wai, chairman of the Democratic Party (Myanmar), worries voters will struggle to distinguish his party from the Wun Thar Nu Democratic Party and the National Development Party.
All three parties use a dancing peacock in their logo.
“People may not know the difference. Their parties also have dancing peacocks,” he told Myanmar Now, sitting in his darkened office during an electricity outage.
Some of the similarities in party logos can also be explained by a tendency of political organisations in Burma to splinter as their founders fall out. This has resulted in the founding of new democratic groups or parties– all of which tend to lay claim to part of the original symbol and name.
Ye Htun’s party was founded in 2010 by former students that played a role in the 1988 student uprising. His party’s logo is a fighting peacock and 14 white stars.
Some former student allies of his broke away and formed two other parties. One has ’88’ in the name and both have a fighting peacock and stars.
A similar situation faced former leaders of the New Society Democratic Party, one of the political parties that emerged from the 1988 protests.
It once had more than 200,000 members then and was the second largest party after the NLD, but its leaders fled Burma in the 1990s after the junta denounced it as an illegal organisation.
They returned home after President Thein Sein’s government came to power in 2011, only to find two parties set up by old colleagues, with very similar names– the New Society Party and Myanmar New Society Democratic Party.
THE COVETED BAMBOO HATS
When the NLD decided to boycott the 2010 elections, which were criticised as fraudulent, some party members left and formed the National Democratic Force (NDF) to contest the polls.
When they chose a party logo they settled on a white star and a bamboo hat against a red backdrop, effectively copying the NLD’s 1990 logo that featured the farmer’s hat – representing Burma’s rural workers.
The NDF later fractured and Thein Nyunt, a former lawyer who won the 1990 elections as an NLD candidate, broke away to form the New National Democracy Party.
As a logo for his party he chose a red flag with three bamboo hats, a move that raised the ire of his one-time political allies in the NDF.
Thein Nyunt is unapologetic, however. “I’m not sure whether those who call us bamboo hat thieves are because they don’t understand the law or whether old age has made them confused,” he said.