Suu Kyi seeks ethnic minority support

2012-02-23 13:03

Myitkyina - Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi hit the campaign trail in the country's conflict-riven far north on Thursday in a bid to bolster support among ethnic minorities.

Hundreds of people greeted the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on her arrival in northernmost Kachin state, where she was to address a political rally as her National League for Democracy (NLD) party gears up for April 1 by-elections.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is coming here not only for campaigning but also to bring unity," NLD senior member Win Mya Mya said at Myitkyina Airport where the opposition leader arrived for her two-day trip.

Some supporters waved the party's fighting-peacock flag, while others wore T-shirts bearing Suu Kyi's image.

"I'm very happy. I want to see her in person as I haven't seen her before. She is one of the women martyrs as well as a Nobel Peace laureate," said an ethnic Kachin NLD supporter, Khaug Nyoi.

"We want to achieve peace through peaceful means," she added.

Key test

The crowds, however, initially appeared smaller than those that greeted Suu Kyi during previous campaign trips.

The April polls, which will see Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time in a constituency near Yangon, are viewed as a key test of the military-backed government's commitment to nascent reforms.

Bloody fighting has raged between government troops and ethnic minority guerrillas in parts of Kachin since June last year, displacing tens of thousands of people.

Suu Kyi - sometimes distrusted by ethnic minorities - has called for an immediate end to the violence.

"Suu Kyi is trying to shed her image as a 'Bamar' leader first and foremost, said Myanmar expert Renaud Egreteau, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, referring to the country's dominant ethnic group.

"The rhetoric that she has always used is that of a national leader who portrays herself as a unifier of an entire people," he said.

Western demands

"But basically Aung San Suu Kyi's positions have difficulty going beyond the simple vague message calling for dialogue and national reconciliation."

Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence in 1948. An end to the conflicts and alleged rights abuses involving government troops is a key demand of Western nations which impose sanctions on the regime.

Myanmar's regime held tentative peace talks with representatives of the Kachin Independence Organisation last month in China, with the two sides agreeing to hold further negotiations in search of an end to the conflict.

The olive branch to the Kachin and other rebels is one of a number of reformist steps by the new government which took power last year, although deep distrust about their sincerity lingers in ethnic conflict zones.

There has been resentment of Chinese-backed hydropower projects in Kachin, where the government in September ordered a halt to construction of a controversial $3.6bn mega dam following rare public opposition.

Suu Kyi's decision to stand for a seat in parliament is the latest sign of dramatic change taking place in the country formerly known as Burma after the end last year of nearly half a century of outright military rule.

Unthreatened majority

The regime has surprised observers with a series of reforms, welcoming Suu Kyi's party back into mainstream politics and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.

Even so, the opposition cannot threaten the ruling party's majority even if it takes all 48 available seats in the April by-elections.

Her NLD party won a landslide victory in an election in 1990, but the then-ruling junta never allowed the party to take power.

A November 2010 election which swept the army's political allies to power was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and by the absence of Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time.

The NLD complained on Monday that the fairness of the April vote was also threatened because it was being denied the use of suitable venues for its rallies, but just hours later it said the restrictions had been eased.