As Myanmar’s general election campaign enters its final month, a survey released this week shows a year-on-year nine-point increase in public trust in leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while in war-torn ethnic minority regions not captured in the poll, experts say support has dropped over her fruitless peace process.
Myanmar goes to the polls on Nov. 8, five years after Aung San Suu Kyi won office on a platform of establishing civilian government after decades of harsh military rule and ending long and costly wars with armed ethnic groups.
A wide-ranging survey of political views in the multiethnic nation released Monday found that 79 percent of respondents surveyed from Aug. 3-5 expressed confidence in the 75-year-old Nobel laureate, up from 70 percent in the same poll in 2019.
The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) was identified by 39 percent of respondents as the party that most closely represented their interests and views, compared to 33 percent in 2019, the survey by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) showed.
PACE conducted 2,577 interviews with respondents across the country to find out Myanmar citizens’ awareness of the elections, intention to vote, current situation and priority issues, level of trust in public figures and institutions, views on political parties, expectation of candidates, and main sources of government and political news.
Though PACE conducted the poll in all 14 states and regions of Myanmar, it did not survey townships in ethnic minority states experiencing unrest or active armed conflict and surges in COVID-19 infections — threats that have hampered campaigning and could thwart voting in some localities.
“It is important to note here that because of security and COVID-19 pandemic concerns, PACE was not able to conduct interviews in some locations in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine states,” the report said. “Therefore, the findings in this report may not represent the views of citizens from those locations.”
Ethnic and military affairs analyst Maung Maung Soe said public trust in Aung San Suu Kyi and her ruling party has grown in central regions where the Bamars, who make up 68 percent of Myanmar’s 54 million people, are the majority, but it is falling in ethnic minority states.
“I’ve observed a trend of falling confidence in her in at least six of seven ethnic states, namely in Shan, Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Kayah, and Mon, where public confidence is down by half,” he said.
“Public support for the NLD is still strong in Karen state,” he said. “If the survey had been conducted exclusively in ethnic states, the results would have shown a clear trend of plummeting trust in her.”
Broad support amid global criticism
Aung San Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader after her pro-democracy NLD party swept the 2015 elections. She continues to enjoy broad support at home even as her reputation abroad has been tarnished by her handling of the expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine.
Though she has revived efforts to end wars between the national army and dozens of armed ethnic groups that stretch back to the country’s independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar remains far from achieving lasting peace.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts to advance Myanmar’s democratic transition have been stymied by an army that does not answer to the civilian leader and retains an effective veto in parliament as well as control over the police.
Her administration has raised the ire of some ethnic minorities by ordering that statues of the leader’s late father, General Aung San, be erected in public spaces in their state capitals.
Many ethnic minorities oppose the statues because Aung San, a hero in the country’s fight for independence from British rule, came from the ethnic Bamar (Burman) majority that dominates the country, and because they believe that the current government should focus on achieving equal rights for them.
NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin asserted that Aung San Suu Kyi has been an effective leader since taking office in early 2016 and questioned results indicating falling public trust in her in ethnic states.
“With regards to the election, Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi’s image is pervasive among the public,” he told RFA. “We can judge that support for her has never waned.”
“Aung San Suu Kyi has visited the ethnic states extensively and interacted hospitably with the local people,” he added. “The locals also welcomed her, so these results are not accurate in general.”
No consistent support
Rev. Hkalam Samson, chairman of the Kachin Baptist Convention, said that the trust that ethnic Kachin parties have in Aung San Suu Kyi has dropped because the NLD did not work with them on ethnic rights issues.
“As for the NLD party, it is observed that its members have not been consistent in supporting ethnic minority issues, so Kachin parties’ support for Aung San Suu Kyi has weakened, though the Kachin public still supports her.”
Tun Aung Kyaw, a member of the Political Steering Committee of the Arakan National Party (ANP), said support for Aung San Suu Kyi is minimal in Rakhine state, where Myanmar forces have been fighting the rebel Arakan Army since late 2018, leaving hundreds of civilians dead and displacing about 220,000 others.
“The Rakhine people’s support for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has dropped significantly because there are no industries or government-sponsored job creation programs in the state, and residents have no vocational opportunities,” he said.
“As the armed conflict and other problems overran Rakhine state, she never came for an inspection or met with local Rakhine people,” Tun Aung Kyaw added.
“The NLD never met with the election-winning ANP party for negotiations either,” he said, referring to criticism of the NLD for being distant with ethnic minority political parties following the 2015 general elections.
In those elections, the ANP, which represents the interests of ethnic Rakhines, won the most contested seats in the Rakhine state parliament.
Ye Myo Hein, an analyst at the Tagaung Institute of Political Studies, agreed that confidence in Aung San Suu Kyi has waned in ethnic states, though support for her remains strong in mainland Bamar-majority regions.
“There are many reasons for this,” he said. “There are disagreements in political views between leaders of different regions.
The gap in the policies of the central government and that of ethnic leaders has been growing in the recent years. This is the cause of falling support in general.”
Only seven percent of the survey respondents said the opposition, the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), represented their views, an increase of only one percentage point from last year.
Trust in the Myanmar military, which under the constitution it wrote is guaranteed one quarter of legislative seats, dropped one percentage point to 43 percent.
USDP spokesman Thein Tun Oo questioned the validity of the survey’s methodology.
“It is difficult to know the true coverage and standard of the methodologies of this survey,” he said. “We will learn the results of the people’s decision on Nov. 8.”
The survey results indicated that people’s interest in politics has fallen, though half the respondents said they would vote in the 2020 elections.
Nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, are vying for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.
The stiffest competition will be between the NLD, which is fielding 1,143 candidates, and the USDP, which has put forward 1,129 candidates.
Reported by Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.