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.

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.

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?

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.”

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.

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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