Burma Elections: On the Campaign Trail with Aung San Suu Kyi

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Ye Aung Thu / AFP / Getty Images

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters at an electoral campaign rally in Kawhmu on March 22, 2012

They waited for hours in the merciless Burmese sun for their Lady to arrive. On March 22, Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi traveled in an unlikely convoy of shiny Land Rovers, ancient Jeeps, tractors, motorcycles, trishaws and even the occasional oxen cart to the township of Kawhmu. For the first time in her life, the longtime opposition leader is directly participating in the democratic process by running for a parliamentary seat in Burma’s April 1 by-elections. A year before, simply flashing a clandestine image of the Nobel laureate known simply as the Lady (or, alternatively, Auntie Suu or Mother Suu) could invite arrest. A year before that, Suu Kyi was confined under house arrest at the behest of the country’s ruling junta, who locked her up for most of 20 years. Back then, to talk of the Lady was to speak in whispers.

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

But on this sweltering day in the height of the hot season, when even dusty palm fronds failed to catch a breeze, thousands upon thousands of Burmese lined roads and fields for miles to openly worship a woman who inspires devotion nearly spiritual in its intensity. Supporters of her National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the 1990 elections that the military regime then ignored, waved the opposition party’s red flag emblazoned with a golden star and peacock. Many wore T-shirts with the 66-year-old’s visage or that of her father, General Aung San, Burma’s independence hero. “I never imagined this day would come,” said rice farmer Yee Yee Myint. “But we’ve finally achieved our dream because of Auntie Suu’s hard work.”

The ground has shifted in Burma. The military junta that spent decades trying to crush Suu Kyi’s popularity has now transferred power to a quasi-civilian government although the army and ex-officers still control many posts. The handover process culminated in nationwide polls two years ago, the first since the junta flouted the NLD’s 1990 victory. The NLD, however, boycotted the 2010 elections, which they presumed would be rigged. Sure enough, the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won in a suspicious landslide. A retired general, Thein Sein, was installed as President; it looked like politics as usual in a country where the military had ruled, in one form or another, since a 1962 coup.

But since then, the almost unimaginable has happened. Thein Sein has shown himself to be a surprising — if soft-spoken — reformer. Could he even be a Burmese Gorbachev? Under his tenure, the culture of fear that has gripped Burma for so long is beginning to lift. In a landmark good-faith move, Thein Sein met last year with Suu Kyi, who was so reviled by ex-junta leader Than Shwe that he reportedly refused to have even the Lady’s name uttered in his presence. And now, in a further sign of just how much Burma, known officially as Myanmar, has changed, Suu Kyi is running for one of the nearly 50 vacant parliamentary seats up for grabs on April 1. That’s a small portion of the total seats in the legislature, so even if the NLD won every empty seat, it still couldn’t challenge the USDP. Still, as symbols go, Suu Kyi in parliament is a game changer.

(READ: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s First Lady of Freedom)

But Burma will need more than symbols. If the upcoming polls are free and fair — earlier this week, the Burmese government announced that it would allow international election observers to monitor the polls — there’s little doubt that Suu Kyi will prevail. How will she and other NLD victors fare as legislators? Suu Kyi will never be seen as just another parliamentarian. The people expect much more from her. “To begin with, we need improvements to our education, health and transportation,” says 74-year-old abbot Zargaya, as Suu Kyi’s live speech carries over loudspeakers near his Kawhmu monastery. “We hope that she can bring full development to our poor community.”

That’s just for starters. Burma lags in nearly every national indicator, from corruption and health to investment and education. The head of parliament, another ex-general named Thura Shwe Mann, shares a reformist reputation with the President. In recent weeks, he has shepherded through an astonishing amount of legislation — a foreign-investment law here, a law of assembly there. True change, though, will take years; merely passing laws doesn’t ensure they will be implemented. The grind of day-to-day policymaking and legislative maneuvering is something that Suu Kyi, for all her expansive moral vision, has not yet had the opportunity to pursue. And there is always the threat of a backlash against reform from hard-liners.

(VIDEO: Behind the Cover Photo: Evading Police, Capturing a Spirit)

For now, though, elation reigns in Kawhmu. After Suu Kyi delivered her laughter-filled speech near the monastery, thousands of supporters poured out on the main road, like sports fans after a victorious home game. Across the road was a small wooden house with a giant poster out front for Suu Kyi’s rival, the local USDP candidate. (He is a doctor who has practically conceded defeat already.) The owner of the house was the local USDP campaign manager. He was out, but his daughter, in her 20s, was in. How did she feel about the hordes of NLD supporters streaming past her home chanting, “Long live Mother Suu!”? Was she annoyed or scared? “I already went out to greet her,” the young woman said, with a laugh. “I love Auntie Suu.”

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