September 11, 2015 / 1:00 PM / in 2 years

Myanmar candidate backs spending splash as opposition eyes election win

A man prepares to dry his clothes near a SKY Net satellite dish at a housing area for government staff in Bewlekhe September 11, 2015.Soe Zeya Tun

BAWLAKHE, Myanmar (Reuters) - A close ally of Myanmar President Thein Sein has backed projects worth tens of thousands of dollars in his constituency, including satellite dishes, water distribution and a soccer competition ahead of Nov. 8 elections, villagers and local campaign staff said.

Soe Thein's largesse in Bawlakhe, a remote town in the eastern state of Kayah, may help him to secure his seat in a vote the political opposition is expected to win easily.

The powerful author of Myanmar's economic reforms is contesting a seat in the upper house of parliament, and Bawlakhe is seen as one of the few places the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and its allies has a chance of winning.

It has few voters and many of them are members of the military stationed in barracks in the town.

In fact, Soe Thein is running independently, after his request to stand in Bawlakhe was rejected by the former party chairman who has since been sacked by the president, partly for snubbing Soe Thein.

Rather than contest a constituency for the USDP elsewhere in Myanmar with little chance of winning, Soe Thein decided to stand as an independent in Bawlakhe. He remains an active presidential minister, a powerful member of the establishment and one of the president's closest allies.

"If the villagers asked for water, he would make wells," said Win Moe, a local resident who was asked by Soe Thein's team to help distribute handouts. "He donated satellite dishes to the villages," the 40-year-old told Reuters.

"When I went with his team, we donated more than 570 satellite dishes and many solar-powered lamps. Soe Thein also paid for a year's (TV) subscription for every satellite," added Win Moe, who received a dish and a solar-powered lamp.

Soe Thein has done nothing wrong by supporting the spending in Bawlakhe, the local election commission and President's Office said, when asked about the projects.

"The distribution of these satellite dishes has nothing to do with Soe Thein's election campaign," said Zaw Htay, a senior official from the President's Office.

"Being a member of the cabinet, he did it on behalf of the government as a part of the government's development scheme in far-flung areas."

Zaw Htay added that the money for the projects came from companies and individual donations.

Kyaw San Win, assistant director at the Union Election Commission in Kayah, said the "donations" did not occur during the election campaign, and Soe Thein had not broken any rules.

"No candidate so far has broken any rules of the UEC in Kayah State."

SOCCER CUP

Any suggestion that Soe Thein sought to influence voters with generous handouts could prove an embarrassment for Thein Sein and the USDP and a boost for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she tours Kayah state.

She drew attention to the recent spending during a speech in Bawlakhe late on Thursday.

"In some places, there are bribes being given out to villagers. On my way here, I saw new electric pillars; it's the usual thing when the election comes nearer, the people who want votes always do that kind of thing.

"That's why I'm saying 'no' to the short-term vision. We have to think about the long-term."

She flew in to campaign in Kayah this week in a direct challenge to an establishment she hopes to eclipse in the country's first general election since strict military rule ended in 2011.

Suu Kyi has declared her National League for Democracy's (NLD) ambition to win all of the contested seats.

Sai Gyi, chairman of the NLD's chapter in Bawlakhe, a town of 8-10,000 people with no mobile or internet coverage, said Soe Thein's team donated 74 solar-powered lamps to a nearby village of some 100 houses in July among other gifts, and held a soccer tournament titled The Soe Thein Cup with a top prize of $2,300.

The water distribution project, also named after Soe Thein, is worth around $78,000, Say Gyi added.

The USDP won every constituency in Kayah state in 2010, but those elections were rigged in favor of the party.

This time around, some residents of Bawlakhe welcomed the investment.

"He (Soe Thein) asked us if we wanted Skynet (satellite dishes), we said yes and he gave them to us," said a teacher, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"Here, people are not educated, they are simple and honest. They have never received that kind of donation from anyone."

Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski and Aung Hla Tun; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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