Myanmar Parties Chafe at Restrictive Campaign Speech Rules

Myanmar election authorities on Friday warned political parties competing in November general elections not to use language critical of country’s military or the army-crafted constitution in campaign speeches on state media.

Each of the 93 parties contesting the vote on Nov. 8 will be granted free air time to give 15-minute campaign speeches on state radio and television and have those statements published in state-owned newspapers.

To qualify, however, the parties must submit draft speeches to the Union Election Commission, which will vet them in coordination with the Ministry of Information. Speeches can be rejected for improper content.

Off limits in the speeches are criticism of the armed forces, which have dominated politics in the former British colony since a 1962 coup, and negative remarks about  2008 constitution drafted under the military-junta that guarantees military lawmakers a quarter of legislative seats through appointment.

Leaders of several parties expressed concern about the restrictions, which were also imposed in the 2010 election, which was won by the junta-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a vote widely condemned as neither free nor fair.

“According to our experiences in previous election, the commission edited our draft speeches, and asked us to change some words,” Than Myint, chairman of the Federal Union Party, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“A few parties had to write new speeches because their first drafts were rejected by the commission. Especially, we can’t use any words against the army,” he said.

Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNLD) Secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin said the policy imposes many prohibitions and restrictions -- some of which “restrict rights of free speech.”

“Our party hasn't had any plans for the speeches yet, but, when I tried to write a personal speech to air on radio, there is nothing left to put in the speech because of the many restrictions,” he told RFA.

Aye Thar Aung of the Arakan National Party (ANP) said that in the 1990 campaign, “military intelligence changed some of my words in the speech and the meaning of my speech totally turned opposite.”

Although Aye Thar Aung rejected the changes and refused to record the speech, “they forced me to record the rest of my speech without the part they changed. So, my speech was just for two to three minutes.”

November’s polls are being seen as a key test for Myanmar as it struggles with democratic reforms introduced after the quasi-civilian leadership of USDP came to power.

A total of 1,171 seats are up for election on Nov. 8, with 330 seats in the Lower House, 168 in the upper chamber and 673 in regional legislatures.

A total of total of 6189 candidates, 5866 candidates from 93 political parties and 323 independents, will contest in 2015 election.

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Paul Eckert