Myanmar’s opposition leader and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi warned Friday that Sunday’s by-elections would not be “genuinely free and fair” because of campaign irregularities, but pledged to take part anyway, calling the vote “decisive” for her country’s future.
Citing intimidation of candidates from her National League for Democracy (NLD), inaccurate voter lists, and illegal interference in the campaign by government officials that she called “beyond what is acceptable,” Ms. Suu Kyi said her party would “try to tolerate” such obstacles and “go forward because that is what we believe our people want.”
Only 45 of parliament’s 664 seats are at stake, and the elections do not threaten the overwhelming majority that the military-backed Union, Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won in 2010 elections widely seen as fraudulent. But the vote marks the first time in more than two decades that the NLD has contested an election, as Myanmar’s (Burma's) nominally civilian government, dominated by former generals, offers new political freedoms in a bid for international acceptance after half a century of harsh military dictatorship.
The election “is very important symbolically for Burma’s transition to democracy,” says one Western diplomat. Should Suu Kyi win a seat, as expected, her arrival in parliament would be “historic and precedent setting … bringing a different dynamic” to Myanmar’s fledgling reforms.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who has been under house arrest for the better part of the past 20 years, is running in an election for the first time.
The election is seen as critical to the government’s efforts to persuade the United States and other Western countries to lift crippling economic sanctions. President Thein Sein, a former general, has promised the vote will be clean and has invited international observers to monitor the election.
“The government wants Aung San Suu Kyi in parliament to solve its international credibility problems,” says Thiha Saw, editor of the weekly “Open News.” “It’s not that they love and adore her, but they need her to start the process of lifting sanctions.”
Suu Kyi’s immense national popularity is expected to sweep the NLD to victory in a significant number of seats, though there are no reliable opinion polls in Myanmar. She has earned her moral authority both through her indomitable advocacy of democracy in the face of persistent persecution and the fact that she is the daughter of national hero Gen. Aung San, father of Myanmar’s independence from Britain.
Her party platform, however, like those of the other pro-democracy party the National Democratic Force (NDF) and the USDP, offers little more than generalities to an electorate unused to democracy and widely ignorant of its workings.
Instead, in a country where personalities, not policies, are key to political success, the NLD is relying on Suu Kyi’s charisma.
Indeed the future of Myanmar’s democratic reforms hinges crucially on her and on President Thein Sein, the man driving changes here, with whom she reached an understanding last August that led to her party’s participation in Sunday’s elections.
“It is the luck of the draw that we have Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein where they are now,” says Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who now runs civic education programs.
But after 50 years of military rule that destroyed trade unions, professional organizations, political parties, and all other institutions except the military itself and the Buddhist “sangha,” or community of monks, the personal relationship between the two leaders is a fragile basis on which to base Myanmar’s political future, say some analysts.
Suu Kyi herself acknowledged as much Friday, telling reporters that although she was “confident that [Thein Sein] genuinely wishes democratic reform … I’ve never been certain how much support he has, especially from the military.”
“Change has come because of a personal understanding between two people,” cautions Zaw Nyunt, a former Army captain who was driven into exile after seeking to create a labor union during an uprising against the military government in 1988. “Can genuine change come from this sort of personal relationship?”
Many citizens are uncertain of the government’s sincerity in its reforms, such as a relaxation of press censorship, tolerance of once-banned trade unions, and readiness to allow public expressions of support for Suu Kyi, previously treated officially as a non-person.
“But the fear has gone, and hope is emerging” among ordinary citizens that the changes under way since the current government took office a year ago are irreversible, says one European diplomat.
At the same time, he cautions, few expect the military to retire completely to their barracks after being at the heart of the nation since its foundation. Suu Kyi herself, a general’s daughter, has often appealed to the Army for its help in building a new Myanmar.
“The Army’s endgame is to remain the guarantor of national sovereignty and unity, and to be an actor with the legitimacy to intervene if things go badly,” as in neighboring Thailand, says the diplomat.
Sunday’s by-elections, a dress rehearsal for full-scale parliamentary elections due in 2015, will be one small step toward a genuine civilian role in government, and an early one at that. On a democratic scale of 1 to 10, Suu Kyi said Friday, “we are trying to reach 1.”
If the elections are tolerably free and fair, however, they will be “a real push on the democratic path and people will trust the government,” says one local journalist. “This is a trust-building process between the government and the people,” many of whom do not yet know what to make of the military’s dramatic change of course.
“I myself find it unbelievable,” says the journalist. “But I believe in it nonetheless.”
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