For Aung San Suu Kyi, next week's by-election is an attempt to reach out to the people and affirm her credentials as a unifier of Myanmar.
The political fortunes of Myanmar's famous dissident rest in the hands of an impoverished community, many of whose members come from the country's Karen ethnic minority.
It is the estimated 87,000 eligible voters in the Kawhmu township, on the southwestern fringe of the former capital Yangon, that the Nobel Peace laureate is trying to woo as she seeks another milestone in her journey as the conscience of her military-dominated nation — to be elected a parliamentarian in the April 1 by-election.
The choice by the 66-year-old leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest in Kawhmu against two other candidates — one of whom is the nominee of the ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) — is rich in symbolism. She is attempting to use the by-election to reach out and affirm her credentials as a unifier in a country that has been ripped apart by ethnic divisions and separatist conflicts for six decades.
The numbers she has attracted during four campaign stops in Kawhmu — close to 40,000 during one held in an open field near a Buddhist monastery last week — are as large as the thousands she has drawn during her election campaigns to all 47 other constituencies across the country where her party is fielding candidates.
The adoring crowds who wait for her for hours in the blistering sun swell to life and chant slogans as the familiar figure, with a sheaf of flowers stuck in her hair, takes the stage. “Amay Sue! Amay Sue! (Mother Sue! Mother Sue!),” they cry.
Themes during campaigning
Her speeches during the campaign trail have touched on themes that she has developed since she began her Gandhian role in 1988 to challenge decades of military oppression in Burma (as the country was then known). “All repressive laws must be revoked and laws introduced to protect the rights of the people,” she said during a landmark speech in mid-March on state-controlled television. “The judiciary must be strengthened and released from political interference.”
She has also taken the more conventional route followed by campaigners in Southeast Asian countries — accusing the government of denying her party access to venues for campaign stops, such as football fields (under the control of the sports ministry); expressing concern about election frauds such as voters' lists with names of dead people (a problem during advanced voting); and pledging to solve the country's crippling unemployment (she has promised to find jobs for voters in Kawhmu, where many survive on fishing).
The attention that Sunday's by-election has attracted affirms how high the political stakes are not only for Suu Kyi and her NLD, but also for President Thein Sein, who heads a one-year-old quasi-civilian government, and his emerging challenger from within the military camp, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann — a former general like Thein Sein. Were Suu Kyi and her party to emerge triumphant, it would mark their entry into the formal political system after decades of oppression and marginalisation by the juntas that preceded the reformist administration of Thein Sein. Their place, however, would be among the ranks of the opposition in both the Lower House — where the USDP holds 219 seats following a fraud-plagued 2010 general election, and non-elected military officers hold 110 out of 440 seats — and the Upper House — where the USDP occupies 123 seats and the military, 56 out of 224 seats.
Such a scenario, with added proof that the polls were free and fair, would be a political windfall for the President. Yet that would mean Thein Sein having to deal with the anger in the ranks of the USDP, whose leaders, many of them former military men, have become increasingly resentful of the reforms since last August, given that they have to pay a political price for it.
An exception to such a USDP mindset is Shwe Mann, the most powerful military officer who traded his green uniform for the civilian longyi. As the Speaker, he has rubbished Myanmar's critics who say that the country's Parliament is a rubber stamp for executive authority, on the lines of China's National People's Congress. In the past year, he has led the way to form Parliament oversight committees to check the President's authority. Suu Kyi and the NLD in Parliament would consequently appear as a natural ally for Shwe Mann, whose political agenda appears to be shaped with an eye on the country's next general elections in 2015.
Yet for Suu Kyi, there are other political stakes to consider in her role as a new parliamentarian. There is, after all, a halo around her after over 20 years of struggle against military dictatorships. Will the rough and tumble of daily politics diminish her defining qualities — as a symbol of hope and righteousness in her troubled country?
(Marwaan Macan-Markar is a Bangkok-based foreign correspondent who has been covering Southeast Asia since 2001 for an international news agency.)