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Myanmar Election Crowds Defy Coronavirus Restrictions at Campaign Events

2020-09-23 -- Myanmar's election authorities are calling on political parties to rein in large crowds of supporters defying coronavirus prevention rules that limit public gatherings to 50 people, but parties say they are unable to stop turnout as the race for Nov. 8 elections heats up.

The final six weeks in the campaign are playing out as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has spiked in the Southeast Asian country of 54 million people, with 3,000 new cases recorded in the last six days alone. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health and Sports registered 7,177 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 434 new ones, with deaths jumping by 14 bringing the total to 129.

Since the 60-day campaign period began Sept.8, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military-aligned opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — the nation's two major parties — have violated the rules most blatantly by parading on vehicles through the streets of towns and cities with large entourages, residents of several regions in Myanmar told RFA.

"The NLD and USDP campaigners are the worst. The other day, they paraded around in large numbers, and humanitarian groups had to follow the crowd everywhere and spray sanitizer at all the spots they visited," said Dwe Htet Htet, a resident of Monywa city in the northwestern region of Sagaing.

"They should avoid gathering in large numbers during this pandemic. The health of the people should be the priority. Winning an election is not as important as the pandemic. I would like to appeal to the party officials to stop," she told RFA.

Tin Oo, chairman of the election commission in Sagaing region, told RFA that the parties themselves are responsible for enforcing coronavirus rules.

"The commission cannot enforce them. The crowd will simply not comply if security forces and civil administrators try to enforce the rules. It is best if the political parties and the candidates who organize their campaigns enforce those rules," he said.

Though the Sagaing Region Election Subcommission has not yet received any official complaints about the large throngs in the streets, Tin Oo said several parties have asked how the body would supervise campaign events.

UEC 'should do its job'

Similar crowds at rallies in the central region of Mandalay have led to calls on the the parties and election authorities to be held accountable for enforcing the rules.

"These campaign activities should be supervised. They are taking a huge risk by gathering in the hundreds just to show support for a political party," said Saw Zin Maung Soe, a Mandalay resident.

"Instead of making the excuse that there is no complaint yet, the commission should warn these parties. The Union Election Commission [UEC] should do its job. There have been examples of the UEC giving warnings to other [minor] parties for other issues," he said.

The UEC is the national body that vets candidates and oversees voting in Myanmar with the help of election subcommissions in states and regions.

Kyaw Kyaw Soe of the Mandalay Region Election Subcommission told RFA, however, that the UEC's remit is to monitor the election campaign activities of candidates, not those of party supporters, while local authorities are responsible for enforcing coronavirus-related rules for the crowds of supporters.

"The commission has issued permission to the parties and candidates to campaign. We did not give them permission to parade around with groups of supporters," he said.

NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin told RFA that the party chair herself requested that supporters avoid large gatherings, but said that it is up to the supporters to comply with the request.

The USDP has taken a similar stance on observing the limit on gatherings.

"We are strictly enforcing the no-gathering over 50 rule," said USDP spokesperson Nandar Hla Myint.

"But it is hard to enforce the rules for our supporters. I think the party leaders need to give specific instructions on rules and regulations to party members of concerned districts," she told RFA.

In addition to the coronavirus risks posed by the large gatherings, there have been reports that rival party supporters have clashed with each other in alcohol-infused street brawls.

Nearly 7,000 candidates from more than 90 parties, as well as independents, are vying for 1,171 seats available in both houses of the national parliament and in state and regional legislatures.

Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint, for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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