Designing Democracy: How Myanmar's Political Parties (Finally) Created Unique Brands
In 2008, President Obama’s campaign revolutionized the role of graphic design in American politics. Using a contemporary typeface and bold logo, Obama’s campaign presented an cohesive brand that struck a bold contrast with his opponent's traditional typefaces and visuals.
The same lesson about the importance of unique branding was made clear the hard way in the years leading up to last week’s parliamentary elections in Myanmar, where political parties traded accusations of copying each others’ logos. Because the country was under military rule for the past 50 years, the election was only its third since 1962. And with such a sparse political history to draw from, parties chose to use symbols that would be instantly recognizable to residents who weren't familiar with the electoral process. While politicians hoped that approach would them develop loyal followings, it backfired when many of the parties chose extremely similar symbols. Factor in that 9 out of 17 parties include a form of the word “democracy” in their name, and the result was a political mess.
The symbol that caused the most confusion during the campaign season was the kha mauk, a traditional Burmese farmer’s hat. Typically made of bamboo and formed into a conical shape, the kha mauk became the symbol of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1990,. Despite winning a landslide victory, Suu Kyi’s party was denied power by the military government. By the time the party geared up for this year’s election, some members of the NLD had broken off to form the National Democratic Force, who also chose the kha mauk as their symbol.
Ohn Kyaing, an executive member of the NLD, told reporters the NDF was wrong to use the same symbol because the kha mauk is essential to the identity of his party. “A kha mauk is a kha mauk, and it was the recognized logo of the NLD in the last election," he said. "The kha mauk is the symbol of the NLD's 1990 victory—and it is also the symbol of the people’s victory.” The kha mauk has come to represent defiance against the ruling military, and the hats are regularly worn by young activistswhen protesting.
In 2010, the NLD filed a formal complaint to the election commission, hoping to block the NDF from using the kha mauk. The NDF was allowed to keep the symbol, though Khin Maung Swe, an NDF leader admitted that voters might be confused in the upcoming election. Adding to the chaos, the New National Democracy Party's symbol includes three bamboo hats.
After the commission allowed the NDF to continue using a kha mauk, the NLD chose to change its own symbol, trading the hat for a symbol of a golden, fighting peacock. While the image of a peacock displaying its feathers has long represented the country, an aggressive version of the showy bird was used by student protestors, whose rallies were brutally squelched by the military, resulting in the death of 3,000 people. “We used this image to acknowledge the struggle of the students,” said Win Htein, a senior member of the NLD.
The confusion doesn’t stop there; the Mon National Democratic Party also uses agold bird as its symbol that looks very similar to the NLD’s fighting peacock. The symbol is actually a hamsa, a mythological, goose-like bird that has appeared on past renditions of the country’s flag.
Aung San Suu Kyi may have led the NLD to victory, but not without the headache of defining a political identity for an inexperienced electorate. Politicians are right to reach out to their constituents by employing symbols that speak to the country’s heritage, but extra care and creativity must go into differentiating one political party from another. As Myanmar witnesses the greatest change in its modern history, political parties will eventually gain more experience and better-defined identities, taking an eager electorate with them.