Shan diaspora excluded from Burma’s first election

Sai Aw Sally Kantar

On November 8, Burma will vote in the first competitive election in a generation.

Yet these polls have been widely described as flawed, not least because portions of the country’s most marginalized populations will be excluded from the electoral process. This includes an estimated 200,000 Shan in northern Thailand, members of Burma’s largest ethnic minority group. A stagnant economy, failing state institutions and an intractable armed conflict have created an exodus of Shan across the porous, mountainous border into Thailand since the 1980s.

“From many years ago and until now, our people have been facing a civil war and a political crisis,” said Mwe Pong, a 30-year-old Shan woman who is both studying to earn her high school diploma in Thailand and working to support herself as a cook in a local restaurant. Ten years ago, she left her village in Shan State because of fighting near her home.

As early as 2002, migrant rights groups estimated that up to ten percent of Burma’s population had left the country; it is unknown how many more have migrated since, or how many have returned.

Once in Thailand, the “migrant” label has prevented the Shan from receiving the rights promised to those accepted as “refugees”—in a country which is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention—that of shelter, education, health care, and resettlement.

A boy cycles through a Shan village on the Thai side of the Thai-Shan State border. The community is home to about 500 people who fled fighting in 2002 and have not been able to return to Burma. Estimates of the Shan population in northern Thailand place it at 200,000.

Mwe Pong has spent almost her entire adult life in exile. She should be eligible to vote this year, but she will not be able to cast a ballot from her current location. For Shan youth in Thailand, democratic participation is more likely to be expressed through engagement with a community-based infrastructure of schools, labor organizations, media outlets and development networks rather than through voting.

According to documents published by the Burmese Embassy in Thailand, less than 150 Shan State students, workers and unrecognized refugees in the country have qualified for advanced voting in Burma’s polls, leaving the vast majority unable to formally participate in their country’s political process.

“We can’t help them,” said a high-ranking official at the Burmese Consulate in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when asked by local Shan media how migrant workers might cast ballots in November’s election. “They have to go back to Myanmar to vote,” he said, referring to Burma by its other commonly used name. 

Having been displaced from their villages of origin, children eat lunch in a community which has resettled on the Thai-Shan State border. Many Shan in Thailand are stateless, but some are able to obtain temporary documentation and limited residency cards.

But a return home requires days of difficult, expensive and often dangerous overland travel, making it an unrealistic option for most. Still more Shan in Thailand come from active conflict zones to which a return might be impossible, or where voting might not even be taking place; the Union Election Commission has cancelled polling in parts or all of 17 of Shan State’s 50-plus townships, citing the conditions as “not conducive to free and fair elections.” The move was protested by some local party members, who have long waited for the chance to compete in these constituencies.

This scenario is disappointing but not surprising. Burma struggles with the legacy of more than 50 years of army rule and a civil war which has lasted three generations. Now led by a quasi-civilian government, the country is holding this election to select only 75 percent of a new parliament: 25 percent of the seats are still reserved for military members under the country’s 2008 Constitution. Within this system, it remains unclear how winning parties might establish new national leadership.

“We have to wait and see who will be the government,” Mwe Pong said. “I don’t have any expectations.”

A bell used to mark the start of the day in a non-formal school on the Thai-Shan State border serves as a reminder of war: it has been fashioned from a large artillery shell.

Parliamentary elections seem a distant affair for a growing number of Shan currently displaced within Burma as well. In October alone, the Shan Human Rights Foundation reported that 6,000 civilians fled their homes in central Shan State due to “indiscriminate shelling” by the Burma Army in an offensive against one of the Shan non-state armed groups, the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). The SSA-N was not a signatory to Burma’s controversial attempt at a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA), which was signed in mid-October by the government and only eight of the country’s more than 20 ethnic armed groups.

Ethnic youth from conflict areas now advocate not only for political change, but for an end to the war that has created the diaspora to which they reluctantly belong. “Everyone wants to go back home,” said Mwe Pong of the Shan community in Thailand.

The struggle for ethnic self-determination, equal rights, and control over political destinies will continue to be negotiated and fought from both beyond the polls and Burma’s borders.

Young Shan women celebrate Pii Mai Tai, or the Shan New Year, at a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand. On their cheeks they wear painted emblems of the Shan flag: display of this symbol is still discouraged in parts of Burma and Thailand.

Major Political Parties in Shan State

In central Burma, political discussions often center on the competition between the military-backed Union State and Development Party (USDP) and Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). But election debate with the Shan public in Thailand or Burma inevitably revolves around the two major ethnic Shan parties contesting seats on November 8: the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP). This is the first time that these two parties are competing against one another for the support of the public.

Temple-goers purchase traditional snacks from vendors at Shan New Year celebrations in Chiang Mai. The festivities in northern Thailand are the biggest outside of Shan State due to the large numbers of Shan migrant workers and unrecognized refugees who now reside there.

Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD)

The SNLD, known locally as the “Tiger Head Party” in reference to its logo, won 23 seats in Burma’s 1990 elections—the majority in Shan State—and nationally came second to the NLD in the polls. But the military government refused to cede power to any of the elected parties. In 2005, the SNLD’s chairman, Khun Htun Oo, was sentenced to a 93-year jail term for treason by the military government, of which he served seven years before being pardoned with a selection of other political prisoners. The SNLD was re-formed, and the party is running on the platform that they will work to amend Burma’s controversial 2008 Constitution, which is seen by many as the legal entrenchment of the Burma Army in the country’s politics.

Shan community members engage in an impromptu traditional dance outside a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai at the end of Buddhist Lent. Such dances are often led by rhythms pounded on long traditional drums, called gon khun yao.

Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP)

Commonly referred to as the “White Tiger Party,” the SNDP is relatively new, formed in 2010 by former SNLD leadership after the SNLD boycotted the elections in the same year. SNDP currently holds 57 parliamentary seats and claims to have over a half-million members. Its chairman, Sai Aik Pao, is a current government minister of mines and forestry, and has said that his party’s focus is on bringing change through control of the state government, and a promise to end practices of illegal land confiscation which plague the region.

Frustrated by a lack of press freedom in Burma and of media in their mother tongue, Shan language radio, TV, and online media have formed in exile. Here, one Shan youth interviews another on the day of her graduation from a community-based education program.

Shan youth in Thailand write their thoughts on a signboard at a memorial for victims of civil war in central Shan State. In October 2015 alone, local media and human rights groups reported that around 6,000 civilians were forced from their homes in central Shan State by Burma Army offensives. They are now staying in monasteries and makeshift camps with limited aid.

Sai Aw is a journalist and editor with the Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.), where he reports on human rights, politics, and environmental issues in his native Shan State. He holds a BA in Multimedia Journalism from the Institute of International Studies at Ramkhamhaeng University in Thailand.

Sally Kantar is a social justice educator and freelance journalist focused on Southeast Asia. Her written work has been featured in regional publications as well by as the University of San Diego's Women PeaceMakers Program. She holds an MA in Conflict Resolution from the University of Bradford and a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University.