Shan State proved to be an anomaly in Burma’s 2015 election.

In most of the country Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) dominated, but the results in Burma’s largest state were exceptional in scale and diversity.  Over 10 political parties won at least one seat in the Shan State parliament led by the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party who won the most, followed by the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and then NLD, who were followed by numerous other ethnic political parties.  Since 2013, IRI has worked closely with national and ethnic political parties in Shan State and our recent conversations have offered insights into the election there. One thing is for certain — state level party leaders and activists were surprised at the election results.

National and ethnic political parties working in Shan State identified a number of critiques of their own performance, including assuming victory and not working hard enough, selecting the wrong candidates, insufficient voter education and poor communication with the media. Some parties spoke to the fact that their candidates did not reflect their local community or were not respected by local communities.  In some cases, the candidates were not actually local at all, having been put in place by party leaders based on internal party decision-making.  Some parties acknowledged receiving unfavorable media coverage but failed to respond.  Political parties also attributed failures to concerns about the voter list and other challenges such as reaching Shan State’s rural voters or a lack of voter education.  Many of these concerns are echoed in discussions IRI has conducted around Burma.  However, in Shan State these elements combined to produce an electoral outcome that differed greatly from the rest of the country. 

In the wake of the 2015 elections, with support from the National Endowment for Democracy, we are working closely with political parties in Shan State.  The project’s focus is on political party communication and policy and has leveraged Burma’s 2015 census data, the first census since the 1980s, in an effort to help political parties understand their communities and use data in decision-making.  Additionally, the project has helped parties to analyze election results to prepare them better for future campaigns. For example, during consultations earlier this year with Shan State political parties we learned parties knew the vote total of the winner but were unable to constructively analyze the results to improve their strategy.  So we helped them to see trends in local level census results and develop clearer messaging in a quickly evolving country.  What’s more, IRI has found that parties, while remaining engaged in the wake of the election, have not actively reflected on those results as they consider governing, upcoming bi-elections and Burma’s 2020 national elections.  This lack of analysis can be easily understood: for decades, parties were unable to formally organize and compete, while data was scant and if available, often not trusted.  IRI understands the generational nature of some of those challenges, but is working to help parties recognize the urgency with which they need to adopt new approaches to remain relevant and competitive in the future.

This post-election period offers parties an opportunity to pause and understand where they are today, and determine how to navigate the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.  Shan State has a youth bulge and hundreds of thousands of new young voters will cast their vote for the first time in 2020 and beyond.  These future young voters are largely from rural Shan State and some townships have significantly more women than men.  The success of Shan State’s political parties will rest largely on their ability to examine and analyze this type of data in Shan State and then utilize it to connect with and work for voters.          

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