The Lady’s Leap of Faith
Why Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to participate in a flawed election could be the biggest gamble of her career.
RANGOON — A few days ago, I took a taxi ride to a place called Independence Ward. The grandiose name is misleading. This part of downtown Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city, is a slum, and its residents count themselves lucky whenever they manage to eke out a decent living. Jobs are scarce; public services virtually non-existent.
It’s a place where people generally have little to celebrate. On the day that I was there, though, that was exactly what they had decided to do. On 97th Street, equidistant from the corner mosque and a Buddhist monastery, people thronged cheerfully as loudspeakers boomed out rousing tunes, the extraordinary ethnic diversity of this country on full display. Men with long beards and skullcaps rubbed elbows with girls in brightly colored saris and boys in T-shirts and jeans. And everywhere — hanging from balconies, festooning cars, on stickers slapped on cheeks or clothing — was the same symbol: a red flag emblazoned with a white star and a yellow fighting peacock.
That is the sign of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady, or Daw in Burmese, as many refer to her here, wasn’t supposed to show up on 97th Street on this particular day, but the people of the neighborhood gave a feverish welcome to her proxy, a local NLD activist who is campaigning for a seat in the country’s National Assembly. "I want 100 percent of your votes," Phyu Phyu Thin called out. "Is that possible?" The crowd roared their approval. The boys working the loudspeakers cranked up one of the NLD’s signature tunes: a country-and-western anthem (complete with yippee-i-ay’s and cowboy whistles) whose refrain includes the line, "The leader of democracy is back."
On April 1, the people of Independence Ward will head to the polls to vote in a parliamentary by-election. It will be the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party colleagues have been allowed to run for office in more than two decades. Back in 1990, when the military-dominated government last allowed a relatively free general election, the NLD and its allies won 92 percent of the seats. That result stunned the regime, which subsequently annulled the results. This time around, as the country slowly transitions to more democratic governance, there won’t be any room for surprises on a comparable scale. The 45 seats up for grabs amount to less than 7 percent of the seats in the Burmese legislature. So even if the NLD wins a landslide victory, it will still fall far short of anything like a workable majority, and its ability to effect change will be correspondingly limited.
Optimists say that this election marks a watershed. Since ex-general President Thein Sein came to power two years ago, he has steered a cautious course toward greater openness: releasing political prisoners, loosening state control over the media, and inviting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to participate in the political system. "This is a compromise for both sides," says Tin Maung Thann of Myanmar Egress, a private group that aspires to train future Burmese leaders. The president, he says, used his power to change legislation so that the NLD could register as a political party, while Aung San Suu Kyi "put her faith in the reforms."
Yet there are evident risks. Some NLD supporters worry that the government will use their party’s modest presence in parliament after April 1 to legitimize what is still a profoundly non-democratic political system. The existing parliament, for example, was chosen in a nationwide 2010 election resoundingly rejected by the international community as a sham. That vote was based in turn on a 2008 constitution drawn up by the military government in a process that bore few traces of genuine citizen involvement. The constitution, which remains in force, reserves a full quarter of the seats in the legislature for members of the armed forces. It’s a situation that results in a curious paradox: Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues are taking part in an election that they themselves consider flawed. "I don’t think we can consider it a genuine free and fair election if we consider what has been happening here over the last few months,” she said in her pre-election press conference today, referring to allegations of widespread violations made by the NLD.
It’s for that reason that she and her supporters have vowed to make amending that constitution one of their political priorities once they join parliament. Yet it’s hard to imagine how they’ll be able to make any headway on the issue — especially given the dominant presence in parliament of the military and the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD’s only hope is that they can persuade individual members that amending the constitution is in their own best interest. Ex-student activist and political prisoner Min Ko Naing says that many members of the pro-regime party are "sitting on the fence," waiting to see how far the government is willing to allow positive change: "So now we have to encourage the reformists."
Don’t hold your breath. The secretary general of the USDP, U Htay Oo, says that he sees little need to amend the constitution, and for the moment there is little visible indication that anyone in the pro-regime party, the vast civil service bureaucracy, or the military is prepared to break ranks. That could change, though, as the effects of genuine political competition begin to be felt. The past few months have seen a marked uptick in the willingness of members of parliament to challenge the government on issues ranging from the budget to peace talks with Burma’s rebellious national minorities.
The biggest wild card factor here is likely to be the Lady herself. Perhaps one of the most startling changes to come over this country in recent months has been the shocking proliferation of her image and words both rigorously banned for so many years. Now every other street vendor appears to have Aung San Suu Kyi swag in stock — a tangible reflection of her enduring star power and her deep-seated popularity with regular citizens. Ko Ko Gyi, another ex-student activist, argues that the number of seats the NLD wins in the coming election is ultimately irrelevant. "This is not a quantity issue," he says. "Aung San Suu Kyi can make her voice louder than any other member of parliament."
When I attended today’s press conference, I understood why: The Lady knows her stuff. Appearing before dozens of journalists today under a sweltering tent on the lawn of the famous lakeside villa where she spent nearly 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, she deftly fielded questions on everything from the president ("I’m confident that he genuinely wishes for democratic reform") to her objectives in the election ("It’s not power that we’re trying to win, it’s democracy for our people"). She strove to emphasize that the NLD’s participation in the April 1 vote is merely one part of a broader strategy to empower Burma’s citizenry by raising their "political awareness" — particularly with an eye to the next general election, set for three years from now. Her trademark humor was also on display. "Yes, I’ve been feeling delicate," she said when asked about her health. "Any tough questions and I will faint straight away."
Yet the flip side of her indisputably immense charisma is the nearly religious fervor that it inspires among her supporters. "The people think of her as a demigod," says Khin Maung Shwe of the National Democratic Forum, a small opposition party that is nonetheless one of the NLD’s political rivals. "They think she can change everything." And many of her supporters worry that her outsized political brand means that the fate of Burmese democracy is inextricably entwined with her personal survival — particularly given that the NLD has few second-tier leaders (not to mention credible representatives of the younger generation) who can ever hope to approach her in stature.
Will she find a way to continue her quest for greater democracy despite the extraordinary obstacles that lie ahead? Perhaps equally important, can she live up to the impossibly high expectations harbored by so many of her supporters? Back on 97th Street, one of her fans contemplates the question. "This party [the NLD] is only for the people," says Ye Htooh, a 51-year-old sailor whose job has taken him to many places where life is far better than in his beleaguered homeland. "We have to vote for them. They cannot do anything for us in this parliament. But they can talk for us. Even if there are only a few of them, they can talk for us. And nobody else can do that."