As Myanmar gets ready for historic by-elections in a climate of unprecedented political openness, the country’s tallest democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has highlighted irregularities in the process, and said that the elections could not be considered ‘free and fair’. However, in a display of the fine balance she is seeking to strike, the Nobel Laureate said that her party was ‘determined’ to take the process forward.
The by-polls due for 45 parliamentary seats on Sunday come after a series of political reforms undertaken over the past year by President Then Sein’s government. He took over after the November 2010 elections, which were held as a part of ‘roadmap to democracy’ designed by the ruling military junta. But the polls were boycotted by Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), both because it refused to follow the established criteria for party registration and suspected it was pre-designed to favour military-backed parties.
But since then, the government has reached out to Ms Suu Kyi, and amended the constitution to enable her to participate in elections. It has also fulfilled several conditions laid out by the NLD and the regime’s international critics – releasing batches of political prisoners; allowing labour unions and opening up the space for free and critical media. This culminated in Ms Suu Kyi’s decision to participate in the by-polls, a first for her party in over twenty years since the military refused to recognise the NLD’s victory in 1990 polls.
On Friday, at a crowded press conference on the lawns of her house — where she has spent the better part of the last two decades under arrest — Ms Suu Kyi cited cases of intimidation and vandalism directed at her party in the run-up to the polls.
She also pointed to flawed voter rolls, claiming that the names of many who have died remain on the list, while those of 1300 eligible voters are missing in her own constituency, Kawhmu. The irregularities, she said, go ‘beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections’.
But Ms Suu Kyi was quick to add her party was ‘determined to go forward since this is what our people want’. She also hailed the growing political awareness of the people, and the widespread participation of the younger generation.
A few hours after the press conference, the NLD’s headquarters in Yangon was bustling with activity – signaling that despite concerns, the morale remained high. In a big hall, party workers were organising memorabilia and publicity material – supplying the T-shirts and caps with Ms Suu Kyi’s images which can be spotted all over the city. Even as he went on compiling her video speech CDs to distribute, an activist said, “Her photo was banned in the papers till recently. Now she is everywhere. This is change. We are sure to win”
Other office-bearers were tracking reports from different constituencies. Aye Aye Nyein, a young member of the NLD’s information team, said that they were monitoring the process of advance voting, which was already underway. “In 2010, this was manipulated by the authorities to favour their candidates. We want to look out for it now.” A domestic election observation report from the time also says that advance voting ‘was the main method of fraud to alter’ election results.
While this is the first poll for NLD in years, there are other democratic parties who participated in the 2010 elections, and some analysts argue, helped pave way for more reforms.
Khin Muan Swe leads the National Democratic Front, which split from the NLD after disagreeing with its decision to boycott the 2010 elections. His party won 11 seats in parliament – at both the central and regional levels. This time, they are contesting in 13 of the 45 seats.
Comparing then and now, he told The Hindu, “There is no doubt this time, it is much freer. There is relaxation in movement, more openness and more transparency. We have had no trouble campaigning.” He added that the present elections were a ‘trial-run for 2015’, the year of the next elections.
The political activity has struck a chord with citizens, starved of any political discourse or competition for decades. At the airport, a young travel agent was pointing at foreign journalists and saying to a friend, “First time, the world is here. This is very good.” When asked who he thought would win the polls, he said unhesitatingly, “NLD. We don’t trust other party; go and read the internet to see why. 99 percent people love NLD.” On Sunday, he and others will get a chance to make a free political choice – for the first time in their lives.