Suu Kyi prepares for Myanmar polls

2012-01-20 13:58

Yangon - With the fighting peacock flag flying outside, Aung San Suu Kyi's Yangon party headquarters are once again a hive of activity as her Myanmar opposition prepares for its first poll battle in two decades.

The excited crowds that gathered around the democracy icon this week as she registered her candidacy for April 1 by-elections testified to the new energy galvanising Myanmar's politics after almost half a century of military rule.

Suu Kyi, who spent much of the past two decades in detention, has already registered to run for a lower house seat in a rural constituency near Yangon - the latest dramatic change in the country formerly known as Burma.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, the daughter of Myanmar's independence hero General Aung San, was under house arrest at the time of her party's 1990 landslide election victory, which was ignored by the ruling generals.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party boycotted a 2010 election that swept the army's allies to power, saying the rules were unfair.

But with a new-found confidence in the government, she will engage in battle herself for the first time - a challenge she appears to address with humility.

Surprising reformist moves

"Am I looking forward to it? I am not sure I think of it as anything other than hard work. But I am not afraid of hard work," she said at a recent press conference.

Myanmar's regime has surprised even critics with a series of reformist moves including dialogue with the opposition, the release of hundreds of political prisoners and peace talks with armed ethnic minority rebels.

The upcoming vote is seen as a major test of the new administration's democratic ambitions after a series of conciliatory gestures by the army-backed government that replaced the long-ruling junta last year.

To those who - in Myanmar and abroad - have put Suu Kyi on a pedestal and believe running in this election is beneath her, she defends the will of the people.

"This is a very dangerous attitude to think that any politician is too high up to be involved in the basis of parliamentary democracy. I think we all have to start with at least a sense of humility," she said.

Suu Kyi remains hugely popular in Myanmar and there is little doubt she would be elected if the polls are free and fair.

Ruling party unthreatened

"Of course I will vote for the NLD because we love Daw (Aunt) Suu and General Aung San," said Yangon taxi driver Khin Aye. "We believe in her. She will be the one who can work for our country and the people."

One danger raised by observers is that Suu Kyi's election could legitimise the regime in a parliament still dominated by the former generals and their allies, with a quarter of seats reserved for unelected military officials.

A total of 48 seats are up for grabs in the April vote, not enough to threaten the resounding majority held by the ruling party, but this does not seem to concern Suu Kyi, aged 66.

"The greatest risk is the people in our party fighting to be candidates among themselves," said the woman widely and warmly known in Myanmar as simply, "The Lady".

The NLD headquarters in central Yangon, a dusty and somewhat shabby building, teems with activists, followers and journalists, while notice boards appeal for new party members.

On the first floor Suu Kyi holds meetings with the party's central committee while on the ground floor young people prepare for the elections.

Rule of law

Women openly sell T-shirts, key chains and calendars with the image of Suu Kyi and her father, while on Yangon's streets her face is on the front pages of newspapers and posters for sale - something unthinkable just a year ago.

Khin Myat Thu, aged 28, joined the NLD eight years ago, following in the footsteps of family members. Her grandfather fought alongside Aung San and today her own commitment as the party youth spokesperson is evident.

"Majority or minority (in parliament) is not important. We will stand for the rule of law," she said.

"Aung San Suu Kyi will try to have some influence on the other MPs so that the democratisation process is accepted by everyone."

Suu Kyi's family home on the shore of Inya Lake in Yangon is also constantly busy with a stream of foreign dignitaries.

There is little point in removing the stage set up on her doorstep for TV cameras between such visits, while solar-powered lighting is installed in the garden along with flags bearing the NLD party's new symbols.

No promises

Progress in the NLD's political platform is matching developments on the house. The official party programme is being drafted and the first issue of a booklet informing the faithful about the campaign was released this week.

Phyu Phyu Thin, aged  40, is running in a Yangon constituency and hopes her experience helping the campaign for the 1990 elections will stand her in good stead.

But she warned people not to get their hopes too high. "There will be no promises. The main thing is to lead people to participate in the political process."