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Opinion

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.

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Suu Kyi said she had come that day primarily to support Dr. May Win Myint, the local NLD candidate. Dr. Myint was elected to parliament in 1990, but like Suu Kyi, was never allowed to serve and spent seven years in prison. After her release, Myint went back to work, treating victims of leprosy and distributing food to the needy.

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When the new “civilian” government – packed to the rafters with members of the military – announced an election to fill 48 vacant seats in the parliament, Suu Kyi and Myint were among the first to step forward, knowing that if the government reneges, they will be the first to be arrested.

It’s a hold-your-breath moment. For now, there’s an air of apprehensive optimism in the country:

Hotel business lounges are crowded with salesmen and real estate speculators from around the world – but they admit the Burmese have little money to buy imports, and they’re not sure the law or banks can protect investments.

Human rights workers and church leaders note that yes, there are fewer soldiers on the corner in Yangon – but brutal army assaults still take place in ethnic areas. More than 70,000 Kachin people in northern Myanmar have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict. They are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Cab drivers point out that a SIM card to run your cell phone used to cost $2,000 and now costs an average of $500 – but a third of the population still lives on less than $1 a day. Small wonder that Burma’s mobile penetration is between 1 percent and 3 percent. The widespread text messaging that brought crowds to protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo is not feasible.

After the rally, I talked to three democracy activists who had just been released from prison. They were college students when first arrested and had served a combined 65 years in prison among them. I asked what they could see themselves doing in five years. They laughed and said, “We could all be back in prison!”

Since my visit, Suu Kyi has been denied large venues such as football stadiums for rallies. Her posters have been defaced and some of her supporters attacked. Voting rosters have been discovered with dead people listed. A memo sent by the military-dominated party decreed that Suu Kyi’s party must be kept from sweeping the open seats by all means possible.

Adding even more drama to the last week before the election, Suu Kyi, exhausted from campaigning, was ordered by doctors to suspend her campaign for several days and rest. And yet today she said her campaign had energized her, because it showed her that the population was "quick to wake up" after "decades of quiescence" and that they have the "right spirit to survive."

So is spring really coming to Myanmar? If Suu Kyi’s party is allowed to become an influential voice in parliament, the tender green buds may survive.

The US can help. Myanmar recently said election monitors would be allowed to observe the polling, but that will mean little unless they have unfettered access.

The Obama administration should keep up pressure for genuine cease fires with ethnic nationalities and coordinated assistance to the 70,000 displaced people at China’s border. And a US ambassador, the first in over two decades, should be named who has deep, clear-eyed familiarity with this country’s multi-layered problems.

Rena Pederson is former speechwriter at the US State Department.

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