Myanmar elections

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD campaign in the shadow of jade tragedy

With Myanmar set to head to the polls in November, a deadly jade mine disaster in Kachin State earlier this month could provide a further blow to the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party in ethnic minority areas

Robert Bociaga
July 27, 2020
Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD campaign in the shadow of jade tragedy
A woman wearing a T-shirt with an image of Aung San Suu Kyi waits to enter the Martyrs' Mausoleum during a ceremony for Martyrs' Day in Yangon on July 19. Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP

When campaigning in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party gained widespread support at home and internationally for a platform built on a commitment to national reconciliation, poverty alleviation and human rights. 

But a tragedy that killed at least 174 miners earlier this month in Myanmar’s jade mining heart of Kachin State has reiterated to some that Aung San Suu Kyi lacks determination to improve conditions for ethnic minority groups on the country’s margins. With Myanmar’s General Elections approaching in November, the impact of the catastrophe on the voting decisions among the majority Bamar and ethnic nationalities is yet to be seen.

Maw Htun Aung of New-York-based Natural Resource Governance Institute told the Globe that “the apathy of NLD towards the ethnic people suffering might [cause] a loss of some seats in the constituencies in the states”.

He cautioned, however, that conscious of keeping the military out of power, disenchanted ethnic minority voters may feel that there is no other better option than to vote for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. 

“Ethnic people may be disappointed, but their expectations toward the NLD could be not that high. Also, with the market transformations on the way, many of them have seen the progress in their areas for the first time in their lives,” he said.

Either way, he did not believe that the State Counselor would be impacted in her heartlands among the Bamar ethnic majority group, where support for her remains “feverish” and which may be enough to secure her reelection later this year.

The July 2 landslide in Hpakant township stirred a renewed discussion about Myanmar’s governance of its natural resources, particularly its poorly regulated jade sector.

Initially, the government claimed that it had issued a public warning one day before the accident occurred, but many doubt its authenticity as it was uploaded online one day after the accident. Following the incident, the government formed a commission of inquiry headed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation. 

The commission, however, includes members that are accountable for the lax regulation of jade mines and the poor governance that many blame for the tragedy, as well as individuals with vested interests. Strikingly, one of the military-backed commission’s members is General Soe Htut, whose Myanma Economic Holdings Limited is armed with more jade licenses than any other company

The primary problem in jade mining has been opaque ownership, avoidance of environmental protection, failure to distribute the benefits equitably, tax avoidance and smuggling

“Conflict of interest undermines the conduct of impartial investigations,” Jenny Domino of International Commission of Jurists told the Globe. “An independent and victim-centered investigation would help ensure that this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

There are good reasons to doubt that this suggestion will be followed.

According to Global Witness, much of the wealth generated by the jade extraction is controlled by Myanmar’s military figures. The Myanmar’s government denies this allegation. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, according to some commentators, has also appeared to treat the problems of the sector with little concern. In one instance, she turned up at an event aimed at promoting peace with the large necklace made out of gemstones. Subsequently, commentators argued whether it was just the fashion statement or the manifestation of tolerance toward the exploitation of natural resources by the military. 

Upon taking power in 2016, the NLD suspended the issuing of new or extending existing gemstone licenses pending a review intended to clean up a sector notorious for rampant rights abuses, drugs, and environmental looting and degradation in Kachin State. However, a new bill intended to govern the sector, passed into law in late-2018, was widely criticised for what were regarded as weak reforms to the opaque industry, with Global Witness stating it “squandered a crucial opportunity to genuinely reform the jade sector”.

Thant Zin, a member of the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), a network of over 450 civil society actors, pointed to a more progressive gemstone policy drafted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Conservation which was drafted as a guideline for regulating the sector – the recommendations from which were ultimately sidelined when finalising the new gemstone law. He claimed that the “finalisation of the gemstone policy was effectively stalled at the Minister’s office”. 

“Our best guess is that the progressiveness of the policy scares some people so much that they must have blocked the advancement of the policy behind the scene,” he said

Thant Zin agreed that forming a commission of inquiry into the recent jade mine disaster is “a step in a good direction”, but also expressed worry that the commission “will act to cover up the wrong doing of cronies companies and military”. He added that “the primary problem in jade mining has been opaque ownership, avoidance of environmental protection, failure to distribute the benefits equitably, tax avoidance and smuggling”.

Support for Aung San Suu Kyi remains strong among Myanmar’s ethnic Bamar majority. Photo: Robert Bociaga

Calls for transparency and accountability may be, however, stifled by the State Counselor herself, with several incidents seeming to indicate her desire to forge strong relations with the country’s powerful generals – not least her denial of genocide at the International Court of Justice in December last year, seemingly backing the military on the Rohingya issue. 

“My analysis of NLD Administration in these five years is [that they did not want] to challenge the military in any aspect,” said Nickey Diamond, Fortify Rights’ Myanmar Human Rights Specialist. 

How this will impact NLD support in the upcoming November General Election is yet to be seen, but Diamond said some indicators suggest signs are not good in the country’s ethnic minority areas. 

“According to my assessment in Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Kayah, and Karen states, there is a considerable backlash against the NLD […] In these states, the NLD will face hardship to win the 2020 election,” Diamond reports. 

His view is echoed by Moon Nay Li, Advocacy Officer at the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, who says that Aung San Suu Kyi and the military “appear to be on the same page”.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has not shown respect for the thoughts or feelings of ethnic people or grassroots civil society,” she said. “Aung San Suu Kyi never challenges the Burma Army, so conflict happens much more often in ethnic areas.”

Robert Bociaga is a traveling photojournalist based in Southeast Asia. His portfolio of work can be found here.

Read more articles