Asia

The story of a small but crucial town in Myanmar

This is the story of Hinthada, a sleepy market town in Myanmar's watery heartland that has become an unlikely political battleground. The BBC's Jonathan Head follows one man who simply has to win here to retain credibility, through a landscape that has seen little change.

The Irrawaddy river slips past fields of yellowing rice at a leisurely pace, reflecting the slower speed of life in the villages of the delta.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption A woman prays at a pagoda in Hinthada, a town in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta, just before dawn on another day of fervent campaigning in the area.

The unprecedented changes that have taken place since the military relaxed its hold on power five years ago are most visible in the commercial capital, Yangon. The lives of those who make their living from the land have not seen such transformations - the opening of Myanmar's economy has less meaning for them.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption Hinthada has not seen the pace of change witnessed by Yangon over the past few years

Hinthada is an archetypal agricultural trading town; a stopping point for the Irrawaddy river boats making their way from Yangon to Mandalay, and a commercial hub for the rice trade. It lies just at the point where the Irrawaddy spreads out into the vast delta, far enough from the coast to have been only slightly affected by the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, although it still suffers seasonal flooding.

But this year the little town has taken on outsize importance, because of the political prominence of one of its native sons, U Htay Oo. He is a former general and confidante of one-time military ruler Than Shwe, and now the de facto leader of the ruling party, the USDP, following a dramatic purge in August of Shwe Mann, a powerful and ambitious man once talked of as a possible presidential candidate.

Mr Htay Oo is a much more low-key personality, little-known outside Myanmar until this year. But as the most senior USDP leader, along with President Thein Sein, he needs to hold on to his parliamentary seat in this week's election for his party to uphold its claim to be the natural party of government.

In the 2010 election he won a landslide, with more than 80% of the vote. But that was before Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) agreed to take part; in the Irrawaddy delta the USDP faced no real competition. This time U Htay Oo has a fight on his hands.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption The USDP rally lacked the spontaneity of the NLD's but had real organisation
Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption U Htay Oo on the campaign trail in an area he has to win, but where the competition is real for the first time

The distinctive red flag of the NLD, with its gold peacock and white star, is visible everywhere on the road to Hinthada. In town you see even more of them, along with life-sized portraits of "The Lady".

There are two such portraits of Ms Suu Kyi flanking Myint Thein's clothing shop. Inside young brides-to-be awkwardly peruse lace blouses and matching longyis to wear at their weddings. Myint Thein, his wife and staff were proudly wearing NLD colours.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionShop owner Myint Thein says Myanmar's current government offers only "fake change"

He recites a list of grievances against the local government, from land grabs - a prevalent problem in a country where all private land ownership was once banned by the military regime - to monopolisation of rice milling and trading by well-connected "cronies".

"They are offering us fake change", he says of the ruling party's reform programme. "Here in the rural areas we can see that the progress they talk about is fake - people are facing real poverty and limited job opportunities."

A walk through the town centre talking to shop owners revealed only one who was willing to state that he would vote for the USDP.

Image copyright JONATHAN HEAD
Image caption The NLD rally was a spontaneous, colourful event, brimming with hope. It remains to be seen whether that will translate to popular votes here.

We stopped by a metal workshop run by a local Muslim family. Their biggest concern was a planned rally later in the week by the hard-line Buddhist-nationalist movement, Ma Ba Tha, which is campaigning for restrictions on Muslim life. Pressure from Ma Ba Tha has resulted in both main parties fielding not a single Muslim candidate, although Muslims make up at least 5% of the population.

Asked which party he would back, U Maung Maung Win told us he would vote NLD, because, he said, "he trusted Daw Suu".

Nobody spoke about the NLD candidate and some did not know who he was - a local teacher called Khin Maung Yee, who was an anti-military activist even back in his student days in the 1970s. No-one mentioned NLD policies, which have been kept vague. As elsewhere in Myanmar, in Hinthada the party is campaigning on a single issue; electing Aung San Suu Kyi.

Their simple message, of hope and change, has very few details.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption Life goes on in a barber shop in the town. It is difficult to guess which way the people of Hinthada will vote on Sunday

Later in the day, at an NLD rally, supporters arrived from surrounding villages piled onto chugging, steaming agricultural trucks, cheering wildly, then disgorging to join the dancing and singing. The air fizzled with unbridled optimism.

They could be in for a disappointment.

Image copyright Andre Malerba

Down at the USDP headquarters party officials preparing for a visit to the countryside for their boss the next day were unperturbed by the NLD festivities. "They are like crows", observed one functionary, "always making noise".

"We are like pigeons. We try not to disturb or excite the people."

Mr Htay Oo spent the morning driving out to what for him may be richer pastures; two small villages on the outskirts where he delivered the same speech to a sleepy crowd dressed in identical green party t-shirts.

He had a few digs at "The Lady", telling his audience not to be taken in by pretty actresses. But his main message was to warn farmers not to risk the progress of recent years with a bet on an untried party - that only a party with power and money, which can guarantee stability and unity, can promise development.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption The Irrawaddy river provides the life blood of the town, and Mr Htay Oo focused his day of campaigning on the farming villages outside.

"It's true the NLD is well known", he told me. "But people should vote USDP because all the candidates for the party have a good track record in developing the country."

As if to underscore the point, he made a generous donation to one village to help them fund a Buddhist celebration. In the warm afterglow of his visit, the villagers were understandably inclined to say they would support his party. The warning about not risking what they had gained, little though that is in most villages, also seemed to have resonated with communities which have nothing to fall back on when things go wrong, and were recently in need of government help during the monsoon floods.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFarm worker and rice transporter on why they will vote NLD in the upcoming elections

On the road back to Hinthada we saw more farmers harvesting the rice, some with small tractors but many in the backbreaking traditional way, with small hand-held scythes. Myint Tin and her husband told us they were paid around $4 for each long day of seasonal work in the fields.

They do not own land themselves. Asked about the election, Myint Tin was shy at first, and did not appear to have an opinion. Then, without prompting, she said she would vote for the NLD, saying she believes only "Daw Suu" would really help the poor.

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption Exercising just before dawn in Hinthada, against the backdrop of the Irrawaddy, which sustains the livelihoods of this region
Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption Agriculture, rice, trade are all crucial issues for voters like this farmer in Hinthada

With no recent history of free voting, and no real polling, it is difficult to guess which way the people of Hinthada will go; there are a few other parties visible in the area, but it is essentially a two-horse race. Will people who have experienced decades of being told what to do by their military overlords take a chance on the untested NLD, or will they stick with what they know?

Image copyright Andre Malerba
Image caption A moment of contemplation and prayer for U Htay Oo, as he campaigned on the outskirts of his home town of Hinthada

Videos filmed and produced by Daniel Bull

Related Topics