As Burma Heads for a Historic Vote, the Opposition Decries Campaign Infractions

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Supporters shout slogans as Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi appears at her house after she reached the constituency where she stands as a candidate in the April 1 parliamentary by-elections in Kawhmu, outside Yangon on March 31, 2012.

The Burmese campaign irregularity was round, hard and launched from a slingshot. In March, an unknown assailant fired a betel nut at an opposition party candidate for the April 1 by-elections, nearly causing an injury. The unlikely projectile was one of dozens of campaign infractions documented by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the Burmese party led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi that is rejoining the political process after the former military regime ignored its 1990 poll victory and kept a tight grip on power for nearly two more decades. “I don’t think we can consider it a genuinely free and fair election,” Suu Kyi told a news conference on Friday, referring to campaign violations ranging from voters lists featuring dead people to the infamous betel-nut incident.

A little more than a year ago, authorities in Burma, also known as Myanmar, might have jailed a person for keeping an NLD pamphlet hidden under their bed. Today, as the NLD contests 40-plus seats in the parliamentary by-election, the opposition party’s posters are plastered across commercial capital Rangoon. NLD campaign rallies have turned into raucous street parties, with nuns, trishaw drivers and civil servants dancing along to opposition anthems that mock the country’s new hybrid government.

Last year, a semi-civilian administration packed with retired military officers, took office after flawed 2010 elections that the NLD boycotted. Led by President Thein Sein, the new government has signed off on surprising reforms, releasing political prisoners and engaging with democracy icon Suu Kyi, who has been allowed to run for a parliamentary seat in Kawhmu, a poor township in the Irrawaddy Delta south of Rangoon. Whenever Suu Kyi’s convoy has rolled along the bumpy road from Rangoon to Kawhmu, the scene has been remarkably festive, like Mardi Gras and New Year’s rolled into one. It’s hard to reconcile this atmosphere with the scared place where even uttering Suu Kyi’s name was done with darting eyes and hushed tones.

That’s not to diminish the import of some of the election violations detailed by the NLD. The party has complained that its candidates have been occasionally stymied when trying to organize public events and that some people have been pressured not to vote for them. One political aspirant running in the new capital Naypyidaw was jostled by forces loyal to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the military’s proxy force that gained firm control of the parliament after the 2010 rigged election. (Even if the NLD wins most of the by-election seats, it will still not be able to challenge the USDP’s dominance until full elections are carried out in 2015.) In northern Kachin state, where fighting between Burmese troops and an ethnic army have displaced tens of thousands, the April 1 poll was suspended. Burma’s Foreign Minister has said the vote will be held as soon as the region is stable. But who knows when that will be?

Meanwhile on Saturday in Kawhmu, a group of NLD supporters indignantly recounted an incident in which a female USDP acolyte apparently confronted a group of NLD-supporting youth and impugned Suu Kyi’s womanhood. A fight nearly broke out, one local recounted.

But given the campaign violence that regularly mars many other developing nations’ polls, the run-up to this historic vote has been remarkably placid. There have been no killings or even maimings in the run-up to an event that will likely soon place the world’s most iconic opposition leader in government. Consider: back in 2003, during a brief period when Suu Kyi was free from house arrest, a junta-linked mob attacked her convoy in central Burma; dozens of supporters were killed. Suu Kyi was quickly locked up again.

On the eve of this election, even as the Kawhmu man was describing the near tussle between USDP and NLD forces, the gathered crowd’s attention soon shifted. To chants of “we love you mother Suu,” the 66-year-old parliamentary candidate rode past in her silver SUV, followed by trucks stuffed to the gills with supporters. Suu Kyi was heading to the simple house that was made hers after she decided to contest the elections in this collection of thatch huts and sun-baked fields. (She is not from Kawhmu but the Rangoon township where her lakeside home is located does not have an empty seat in the by-elections.) “She’s a female hero and inspiration,” said 62-year-old nun Pyin Nya Mary of Suu Kyi. “We are all counting on her to use her courage, determination and willpower to develop the country.”

But for others in the star-struck reaches of Kawhmu, life goes on as it always has. One of the many clusters of people Suu Kyi’s car zipped past was a dusty road-construction crew. They were lugging gravel and pouring tar. In the distance, a green sign announced that the USDP was financing the new road. The men are being paid $3.10 a day, the women $2.50. The five boys on the crew, ranging from ages 11 to 14, receive women’s wages. Aung Paing, 12, left school in second grade and now spends his days from seven in the morning to sundown building a ribbon of road. April 1 is election day in Kawhmu, but Aung Paing has no idea that’s  what makes it a special day for others. For him, the day is a treasure because it will be a rare break from road construction. On Monday, the 12-year-old will be back to work.