Election fever in Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi's party wooing votes from ethnic minorities

Under the baking mid-morning sun, hundreds of people, cheeks plastered with tiny National League for Democracy (NLD) stickers, stream to a swampy open field, buffaloes bolting from their path.

Most on foot, others bumping along on motorcycles and other vehicles - their excitement is clear here at the edge of Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar's northern Kachin state.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is coming.

It is the fourth trip the iconic pro-democracy opposition leader is making to Myitkyina - pronounced "michina" - where her party is hitting its stride in wooing the ethnic minority vote ahead of the country's Nov 8 election.



Supporters jostling for position as Ms Aung San Suu Kyi (left) arrives for her rally, standing through the open roof of a Land Cruiser with a parasol shielding her from the sun, on Oct 2. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The charge of the NLD depends very much, if not solely, on the charisma of Ms Suu Kyi, who comes to the fray backed not just by her years of defiance of the erstwhile military regime, which incarcerated her for a total of 15 years, but also by her pedigree as daughter of independence hero and martyr General Aung San.

MOVING FORWARD

For 60 years, we have been going backwards with full power, and no brains. Five years in power is enough for the NLD. We will amend the Constitution. We already have the goodwill of the international community.

NLD CANDIDATE ROBERT HLA AWNG, a native Kachin

The vote of Myanmar's ethnic minorities is important for the NLD in its quest to get as many parliamentary seats as possible and then mount a bid to amend the military-drafted Constitution, in order to roll back the army's influence.  

Like Myanmar's politics in general, since the transition to quasi-civilian government in 2011 and the opening up of political space, the rally at Myitkyina is a raucous affair. Big loudspeakers belt out rousing party songs at an ear-splitting volume. NLD security men link arms along the path The Lady, as she is widely referred to, will take as she approaches.

When she does arrive, those near the stage jostle for position, amid rising cries cheering Ms Suu Kyi, whom many call Amay Suu or Mother Suu. The security men are harried, pouring with sweat as they hold people back to clear the path.


Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, with faces plastered with National League for Democracy stickers and wearing party headbands (above), using their mobile devices to record her rally in Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, on Oct 2. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The 70-year-old Nobel laureate appears in a Land Cruiser, standing through the open roof with a parasol shielding her from the sun. She waves at the crowds, but loses little time in striding on stage and launching into a 20-minute speech followed by another 20 minutes of answering questions from the audience - mostly to do with the peace talks, corruption, education and the contentious Chinese dam at Myitsone, which locals are unshakeably against.

  • AT A GLANCE

  • ELECTION DATE

    Nov 8

    CONSTITUENCIES

    1,171

    PARTIES REGISTERED

    93

    CANDIDATES NOMINATED

    5,866

    THE CAMPAIGN

    60 days, from Sept 8 to Nov 6.  No campaigning for cool-off period on Nov 7 and election day.

    SEATS AT STAKE

    • 168 in Upper House (Amyotha Hluttaw)

    • 330 in Lower House (Pyithu Hluttaw)

    • 644 in regional and state legislatures

    • 29 ethnic minority positions in regional and state legislatures 

    NATIONAL PARTIES HEAD TO HEAD

    • Union Solidarity and Development Party, the ruling party. Floated by the military, it won the 2010 election, widely seen as flawed and boycotted by the National League for Democracy.

    • National League for Democracy. Led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD in 1990 won an election to set up a Constituent Assembly which was to draw up a Constitution and then transfer power from the military. But post-election negotiations with the then military State Law and Order Restoration Council failed. Ms Suu Kyi was placed under arrest in 1989. Following the 2011 transition to quasi-civilian government, the NLD won 43 of the 44 seats it contested in the 2012 by-elections for 46 seats. 

Her message in a series of rallies over three days in Kachin state: "When I visited here in 1990, there were people on the road with a banner saying 'We want Change'. That change never came. This time it will come, if you vote for the NLD."

That is, change to the Constitution which limits the role of political parties to an arena defined by the military, which holds the real power; the election is, in effect, for 75 per cent of parliamentary seats - the military has a guaranteed 25 per cent. The Constitution also bars Ms Suu Kyi from holding the office of the President because she married a foreigner and their two sons are British citizens.

Backstage sit some of the NLD's 70 candidates in the state, for seats in the state assembly, as well as Parliament in Naypyitaw. Among them is 70-year-old Robert Hla Awng, a native Kachin who worked for decades in the precious gems business.

"For 60 years, we have been going backwards with full power, and no brains," he told The Straits Times. "Five years in power is enough for the NLD. We will amend the Constitution. We already have the goodwill of the international community."

Another candidate, retired Myitkyina University professor of English Sheila Nang Tawng, chimed in. "We believe in her leadership. Ninety per cent of the voters will vote for her."

 In contrast to the NLD roadshow, the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is decidedly low key, its candidates going from house to house and talking to people and distributing leaflets.

"I am on the way to a village to make house calls," 47-year-old USDP candidate Nyunt Win said, brandishing a party flag on the verandah of the musty old bungalow which serves as the party office in Myitkyina.


Aung San Suu Kyi supporters, with faces plastered with National League for Democracy stickers and wearing party headbands, using their mobile devices (above) to record her rally in Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, on Oct 2. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

But the USDP is only in a majority because the NLD boycotted the 2010 election, and now it faces the moment of truth.


Ms Suu Kyi (above) going onstage at the start of her rally in Myitkyina on Oct 2. The 70-year-old’s energetic campaign in Kachin has been matched by enthusiastic support from individuals and groups, such as trishaw riders, during her rallies.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

"They are good organisers," Mr Nyunt Win admitted. "But we will have public rallies soon," he promised. "And I am sure we will win."

 Few buy that, however.


Ms Suu Kyi's campaign has been matched by enthusiastic support from individuals and groups, such as trishaw riders, during her rallies. PHOTO: AFP

Dr Tu Ja, a 69-year-old retired dental surgeon who started the Kachin State Democracy Party, grunted in amusement when asked about the USDP.


An NLD supporter on a trishaw as a USDP campaign truck passes by on Oct 3. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"Nobody is thinking of voting for them," he said.


Parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann (above), former chairman of Myanmar’s ruling USDP, speaking to his supporters during his campaign in the Pyu township of Bago region on Oct 5. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

At the town of Waing Maw, some 30km from Myitkyina, Ms Suu Kyi's rally featured a large banner of her father, in a picture taken when he visited the area in 1947.


Parliamentary speaker Thura Shwe Mann, former chairman of Myanmar’s ruling USDP, speaking to his supporters (above) during his campaign in the Pyu township of Bago region on Oct 5. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

In the crowd was a cross section of the ethnicities which make up Kachin state - Kachin, Burman, Shan, Lishu and other tribes - as well as its religions. They included Gurkhas, many thousands of whom live in the region, descendants of Gurkha soldiers brought there by the British in colonial times.


Public support like this is in contrast to the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s low-key campaign (above). PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

As she left after the rally the mood was euphoric, and cheers rose again. "She is our mother," shouted a young Gurkha man.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'Election fever in Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe