In the sea of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) overwhelming victory in Burma’s 8 November elections there was a small island of success for the ruling party.
Meikhtila, a city in central Mandalay Region, had a sitting lawmaker from Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, whose re-election perhaps had seemed assured. But at a polling station on the night of the vote, as public tabulation began, the name “Dr Maung Thin” was repeated time and again.
Victory for the former rector of Meikhtila University who ran for a Lower House seat for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was confirmed the next day.
The NLD lost three other Mandalay townships, but it was the defeat at Meikhtila – where the USDP won about two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 votes for union and local level seats – that stood out.
The garrison town was the scene of large-scale communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in 2013 that left 44 people dead and more than 10,000 displaced.
The electoral success of the USDP, which had been campaigning on a nationalist platform that was endorsed by radical Ma-Ba-Tha monks, raised questions over whether the experience of the riots had affected voters’ behaviour.
In interviews with candidates, community leaders and voters, Myanmar Now pieced together the reasons for the NLD’s loss.
It seems the defeat was the result of a perfect storm of Ma-Ba-Tha’s campaign against the NLD, fears of further violence, financial incentives offered by USDP, a large presence of army personnel, and a USDP candidate who was well known locally.
MA-BA-THA AND FEAR OF VIOLENCE
Residents who spoke to Myanmar Now noted the frequent sermons by Ma-Ba-Tha monks and persistent rumours during the election run-up that violence could flare up in case of an NLD win.
Ma-Ba-Tha has been campaigning against the NLD since the party refused to support a set of controversial “protection of race and religion” bills that the Buddhist nationalist group had been lobbying for.
Although Khin Wine Kyi, an MP for the National Democratic Force, proposed the laws, the monks credited President Thein Sein and the ruling USDP for their swift passage. Khin Wine Kyi also chose to run in Meikhtila in this election. She lost.
Aung Thein, a Muslim resident and spokesman for the Interfaith Friendship Network in Meikhtila, said monks at Ma-Ba-Tha rallies, “typically claimed that Myanmar will turn into a country dominated by Kalar (a derogatory terms for Muslims), and that Buddhism will die out.”
Maung Maung Htay, a NLD supporter from Ashe Sel Gone village on the city’s outskirts, said the Ma-Ba-Tha campaign had been relentless: “They still played anti-NLD speeches on speakers until 7 November.”
Myint Myint Aye, a former NLD member and well-known land rights activist, said she had also heard of Ma-Ba-Tha’s campaign against NLD, as well as rumours that mosques that were burnt down in the riots would be rebuilt if NLD won.
“There are many reasons (why NLD lost), but U Win Htein (an outgoing NLD MP in Meikhtila) once said he was ashamed to be a Meikhtila-born because of the riots. That resulted in protests against him,” she added.
Khin Maung Htay, an election monitor with local NGO Meikhtila Fellows Organisation, said rumours that an NLD win could spark violence had caused voters to support USDP, as well as “Win Htein’s failure to help develop the city.”
Maung Thin, the winning USDP candidate, claimed he was unaware of the Ma-Ba-Tha’s drive to promote his party, adding that he had campaigned hard and benefited from his status as a former university rector.
“I distributed USDP’s campaign songs, but I have no idea about Ma-Ba-Tha’s talks,” he said. “Most of the voters already knew me; I worked at Meikhtila University for six years. These are advantages for me in the election.”
SOFT LOAN PROGRAMME
Kyaw Myo Htut, an NLD campaign manager for Meikhtila, said the USDP also benefitted from a government programme of micro-loans, called Mya Sain Yaung, that were rolled out in rural communities in the months before the polls, with each household receiving around US$10.
In voters’ minds, the loans came from the ruling party, campaigners said.
“Every government has to try to develop the country but … they must inform people that this loan is from government, not the USDP,” he said.
Lwin Maung Maung from Meikhtila-based Peace and Justice civil society group, echoed similar concerns. “It was not clear whether those soft loans were from the party or the government,” he said.
President Thein Sein visited the city on 23 October to inform residents of development plans that included not only small loans, but also the expansion of paddy field irrigation and the environmental rehabilitation of Meikhtila’s well-known lake.
His visit and plans figured prominently in state media at the time.
For others like Soe Win, stability was the reason for supporting USDP. The 60-year-old merchant, who voted USDP in both parliaments, said: “I can’t guess how the next government and president would turn out. I’ve experienced all governments from 1962 till now and Thein Sein’s government is the best.”
According to the NLD’s Meikhtila office, the presence of some 15,000 army personnel also boosted the USDP’s support, as both civil servants and soldiers came under pressure from superiors to vote for the ruling party.
On voting day at a polling station in Kyi Thone ward in Meikhtila hundreds of soldiers of the Meikhtila Supply Unit lined up to cast their ballot. A commanding officer observing the men said he had helped arrange many of his soldiers’ advance votes in the days before.
The NLD has complained over the involvement of commanders in the advance voting and international monitors noted they were unable to observe the process.
However, in garrison towns such as Pyin Oo Lwin a large army presence seems to have had little impact on election results.
Win Soe Oo, the NLD candidate who lost to Maung Thin, still questioned how free and fair the soldiers’ votes had been. “The votes from military bases will not represent the genuine will of soldiers,” he said.
Read the full 2015 election coverage here.