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Myanmar elections: A hold-your-breath moment for freedom and Aung San Suu Kyi

Suspense is building for the Myanmar elections April 1. Will democracy fighter and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi finally get an official voice in her country, formerly known as Burma? The US can help freedom emerge in Myanmar through pressure and a new ambassador.

By Rena Pederson / March 30, 2012

A girl walks past portraits of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Kawhmu Township in Myanmar March 30. Myanmar holds elections on Sunday and Ms. Suu Kyi is standing for one of the parliamentary seats to be filled. She has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest.

Staff/Reuters

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Dallas, Texas

Just days before the April 1 election in Myanmar (Burma), suspense is building: Will Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi finally get an official voice in her country?

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It’s expected that she’ll win a seat in parliament and gain the victory that was snatched from her in 1990 by military rulers – which would be a stunning political comeback.

Less certain is whether her party members will win enough of the other 47 open seats to make a difference in governance. This tightly controlled country is now inching toward greater freedoms, though this week, the government said it was postponing elections in three constituencies in the Kachin district because of security concerns.

Speaking today to foreign election observers and journalists, Ms. Suu Kyi said that the elections – which will fill only a small number of seats in the parliament – would not be free or fair by democratic standards. But she vowed to continue with her candidacy for the sake of her country.

While in Myanmar recently, I found my way to a campaign rally for Suu Kyi in a dusty suburb of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Since she has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest, it was a rare opportunity. As she often warns supporters, certain elements in the military could revoke recent steps toward openness at any moment.

Two hours before the event, thousands of people filled the streets, jostling for a place to see “The Lady” appear on a balcony. Fathers wearing new T-shirts sporting Suu Kyi’s picture held up children to see. On one side of me stood a farmer in a traditional peasant straw hat. On the other, a shop girl in a faded cotton sarong waved a little red flag with the fighting peacock emblem of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Buddhist monks in burnt-orange robes walked slowly through the crowd as if they were just out seeking morning alms and “happened” to be on the block. They had paid a deadly price for protesting in the streets during the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007. They seem less visible now.

Just a year ago, the monks and the farmer and the shop girl might have been arrested for being there. At this rally, there was a lot of anxious looking-around in the crowd, as if army trucks could roll up at any time.

The only one who seemed totally at ease was Aung San Suu Kyi. When she emerged on the balcony, she spoke to the tens of thousands of people as if they were visitors in her living room. She joked, “People from other parties can vote for us – we don’t discriminate.”

With her trademark spray of flowers tucked into the back of her hair, she still has the look of an Asian Audrey Hepburn, but her earnest speeches reflect her Oxford-educated pedigree. She talked about the need for rule of law to protect people’s rights, and solutions to the widespread poverty in Myanmar, where the average income is $2.20 a day. New foreign investment will help create some needed jobs short-term, she said, but “if our people are not educated, the country can’t develop.”

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