In Myanmar campaign, face-to-face still beats Facebook

Al Jazeera joins female ruling party candidate as she meets voters on the campaign trail.

Zarchi Linn - Myanmar
Only 15 percent of the candidates in Myanmar's parliamentary elections are women [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

North Dagon Township, Myanmar Scouring for every single vote she could get in Sunday’s poll, Zarchyi Linn walks the streets of her district with women volunteers, to distribute campaign materials.

Trudging from house to house to introduce herself to voters, Linn juggles calls on her two smartphones, coordinating her next stop.

There is no budget for a campaign manager. With only a few more days left before the election, the 35-year-old trained mathematician has to divide her time to meet as many supporters as she can.

A man in a white sleeveless shirt and traditional longyi skirt emerges from his wooden house to greet her. Handing him a sample ballot, Linn answers his questions while showing him how to use an ink stamp, to mark the spot bearing the name of the candidate he is supporting.

As she leaves, she flashes a smile hinting she got his vote. 

Linn is running for a seat in the lower house of parliament in a district outside of Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar. Whichever party wins the majority of the two houses of parliament will help pick the next president.  

Growing up in the district, which has transformed in recent years from ricefields into a town of 100,000 registered voters, Linn knows her territory. But her advantage in the competition against six candidates stops there. So she is working overtime – on foot, by bicycle, or on a two-seater cargo truck.   

North Dagon Township has an estimated 100,000 registered voters [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Linn belongs to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is allied with President Thein Sein. Long identified as a party of the former military government, the USDP has the organisation to round up the votes. But after years in power, many voters say they want change. 


In this election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi, is stirring up excitement and passion among many voters. And while there is no reliable survey to predict the result of the elections, observers say the NLD will prevail. The military will still retain 25 percent of the seats in parliament as per the constitution. 

“It is true, everyone is talking about the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi,” Linn tells Al Jazeera. “So I have to work hard to overcome the people’s feelings towards USDP, and make sure that the voters know my name, and the work I have done.” 

She says that every morning during the two-month campaign period, she has been riding her bicycle around the community to meet voters.

Then in the afternoon, she switches to her cargo truck, loaded with her posters. Radio and television commercials are prohibited. Newspaper ads are allowed if candidates can afford them.

Like her parents, many voters in Linn’s district are current or retired public employees who have been provided land and housing by the government. So they are likely to remain loyal to the ruling party. But the next generation of residents her age, and those who are younger, have differing allegiances. Convincing them to vote for her is tougher, Linn says.

Zarchyi Linn, a ruling party candidate for the lower house of parliament, says her strongest opponent is the NLD candidate [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

Of the 100,000 registered voters in the district of North Dagon Township, 60 percent of the voters are women. But that demographic advantage does not automatically translate to more women voting for her, Linn says. 

“The current representative of this district is in fact a woman. But she’s done really bad in parliament. That’s why she’s not even running again,” she says.

“So now, people might not even vote for another woman in this district, because they might think we’re incompetent.”

Across the country, only 15 percent of the candidates in national and regional parliaments are women, Khin Lay, director of the Triangle Women Support Group in Myanmar, says. That is despite statistical data showing that there are an estimated 1.8 million more women than men in the country of 55.7 million.  

“For sure, we are underrepresented, but the fact that more women are running is a step in the right direction,” Lay tells Al Jazeera.

But because of Myanmar’s patriarchal society, women candidates face more hurdles in proving their worth as leaders, she says.   

Linn is running in a district where 60 percent of the voters are women [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]Linn is running in a district where 60 percent of the voters are women [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

For Linn, the challenge now is not just to make people aware of her candidacy, but also to present clear policy proposals for reforms.  

Linn says she wants to prioritise economic reforms in the country. She says too many of the residents are living in poverty. She also wants to reform education, and help improve healthcare. She is promising to donate part of her salary to social services in the community, if she wins. 

As part of her campaign, Linn is using social media in reaching out to voters, posting photos and regular updates on her Facebook page. 

According to the Asian Correspondent, an estimated 22 million people now own mobile phones in the country, a major leap from 2009 when only one percent of the population owned mobile phones and SIM cards cost as much $2,000.

Facebook in Myanmar uses the local language and script, allowing easy access to users. Many activists say they get their updates from Facebook – the most widely used social media site in Myanmar – and also from the messaging smartphone application Viber.

There is less use of Twitter and Instagram as neither application is available in the local language.

But with millions more still without access to the internet, coupled with its slow download speed, parliament candidate Linn says social media remains a minor player in reaching out to voters.

“In the end personal and face-to-face interaction is still the most effective way in reaching out to voters,” Linn says. “It allows voters to interact with us. They can see us in person and ask questions.”

Back at the campaign trail, Linn says she is excited about the outcome of the election.

“Whatever happens, it’s great that we have the opportunity now to vote. It might take time to enjoy full democracy, but we are taking the first steps.”

Linn has reached out to voters online posting photos and updates on Facebook [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera


Infographic: Myanmar Votes 2015 Outside Image

As campaign enters final stretch, political parties scramble for votes that could determine control of new government.

Published On 6 Nov 2015
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