A year ago today, three young Myanmar women were running around Wisconsin learning about grassroots political campaigns. Now, they are blazing their own paths in a changing political scene in their own country. In a week, Myanmar will go to the polls for the first nationwide election since their historic change to a more democratic system. The three women who came to Wisconsin are using the grassroots techniques they learned last year to reach people in their communities.
The Richardson Center for Global Engagement brought the three women to Wisconsin for three weeks as part of their efforts to strengthen political capacity for women and youth. The group consisted of Aye Nyein Moe, a campaign trainer, Zarchyi Linn, a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Democracy Party member and Ni Ni May Myint, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy Party.
This small group witnessed door-to-door campaigning in Madison with volunteers and got to tag along with an Assembly candidate in Green Bay. They went to rallies, watched a debate at UW-Green Bay, checked out many campaign offices and met with election officials. It was all very eye opening but also difficult to understand how to implement in their own country where just three years before outright campaigning was basically illegal and an entire country was afraid to even mention politics. Much like the US, political parties in Myanmar use rallies, stump speeches and pamphlets to get their messages out. But there are, of course, some major differences between our elections. In Myanmar the campaign period is only 60 days in comparison to our never-ending election cycles. There are 91 political parties in Myanmar versus our two major parties, making the selection of candidates much harder. In addition to the sheer number of parties and candidates, is the fact that most do not have a public policy platform and are based primarily on the party leaders and their popularity with the public. Imagine if all the Republicans who are currently running in the primary split off from the GOP and started their own parties—you would get the same muddled situation that you have in Myanmar.
Aye Nyein Moe helps the parties to “un-muddle” their messages. She has trained thousands of political party members and candidates on how to craft their messages to reach voters. Working with all the political parties in Myanmar, she is able to help them see the benefits of grassroots campaigning and face-to-face communication in a country that is used to one-way communication from its government officials. Aye Nyein Moe has especially focused on training women candidates from throughout Myanmar to be prepared for the upcoming elections through Richardson Center women candidate trainings. “Even though the women are from different parties, there is a sisterhood that is created in our trainings that is very promising for the future of our country,” said Aye Nyein Moe.
At the time they could not foresee being candidates in this first major election but two of them were selected by their respective parties to run for the November 8th election. Zarchyi and Ni Ni are now candidates for the lower house of parliament in Myanmar. They are two of the youngest candidates in Myanmar but also two of the hardest working. Instead of attending rallies as spectators, they are speaking at them. Instead of following candidates door-to-door, they are leading them street by street. It’s difficult to get their messages to electorates that have not had much experience in voting or debating policy issues. Ni Ni and her campaign team are traveling by wooden boat to many villages not accessible by car in southern Rakhine State. Zarchyi is going on foot in her large urban district in the north of Yangon followed by pickup trucks playing music and a team of USDP volunteers.
“Hello,” Zarchyi says as she approaches constituents. “I’m the only woman running for the lower house of parliament in East Dagon. Here is my contact number and please call me if you’d like to discuss any issues in our community.” She passes them a brochure and her business card with her own personal cell phone number. She says she has a meeting later that day to meet with a constituent who wanted to ask her some questions. Voters are still apprehensive to immediately broach political or community topics with candidates coming to their doors but they do appreciate the outreach and meeting the candidates themselves. The discussions with constituents don’t normally focus on particular issues but on ideology: vote for the ones who brought about the changes in the past five years or vote for the party that promises major changes for the future. Not until after Election Day will we know which way Myanmar will go but change is what everyone here seeks after a generation of authoritarian governments. The “change” slogan is familiar to American voters as it propelled President Obama into the oval office. But the change that people are looking for in Myanmar is a much heavier lift. Democracy and freedoms seem to be on a two steps forward, one step back trajectory with censorship being lifted in 2012 and citizens being arrested for satirical Facebook posts in 2015. Thousands of political prisoners have gone from years behind bars to seats in parliament but student rights activists are being held for months after protests turned violent earlier this year. In the current parliament, women representation is less than six percent of the total elected members. If elected, Zarchyi and Ni Ni would be strong voices for not only women, but also youth. Young people have always been the leaders of democratic revolutions in Myanmar and these three will be the ones to push the country further down the path toward a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Mindy Walker is the Richardson Center for Global Engagement’s Myanmar representative and has lived in-country for over three years. She previously worked in Wisconsin politics and accompanied the three women to Wisconsin.