Christian Caryl

Few Straight Answers on the Campaign Trail in Burma

In Burma’s historic election, party platforms mean little. Personalities are everything.

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RANGOON, Burma — The Burmese people are heading to the polls tomorrow to cast votes in their first competitive election in recent memory. It’s shaping up to be a historic event. So a few days ago, keen to experience the campaign trail, a friend and I got into a car and headed off to the small town of Phyu, population 45,000.

Phyu, a two-hour drive from Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city, is the home of Shwe Mann, a former general and member of the ruling USDP party. Even though he’s a pillar of the establishment, his campaign has become the subject of considerable intrigue and rumor, fueled by his emergence as a key ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

You’d think that this prominent politician, eager for re-election, would have wanted to generate some headlines for himself. Yet he was careful to do anything but. We listened as he spoke to a group of about 150 villagers seated on rattan mats under a plastic tarpaulin, many of them women wearing yellowish thanaka, traditional sandalwood sunblock, on their cheeks. His speech was spectacularly light on specifics: he promised to make their lives better if they re-elected him to parliament, without specifying how. What the country needed, he said, was “cooperation.” He urged all the parties to bury their differences and work for the common good. That’s as detailed as it got.

A little while later we dropped in on one of his opponents, an NLD member named Than Nyunt, a grocery store owner and long-time activist. When asked to elaborate on his party’s policies, he shrugged: “People don’t know whether democracy is good or not, but they want change.” And change, he said, is precisely what the NLD is promising. Few Burmese understand what more democracy will bring, but they know that whatever it does will be different from what they have today.

If they win control of parliament, Suu Kyi and her colleagues say, they will implement a wide-ranging program of reform aimed at empowering the people and boosting the economy. Burmese voters like the sound of that. Few of them seem to be asking about the specifics.

The striking ideological vagueness of Burma’s election is a legacy of the country’s unhappy history. In 1962 the military seized power and imposed an ideological deep freeze on this nation that ranked in its severity with the harshest dictatorships of the twentieth century. The generals responded to even the slightest hint of dissent with draconian prison sentences.

It was only four years ago that President Thein Sein, himself a former junta member, launched a cautious political liberalization that is now culminating in the first free election in a quarter of a century. Burmese have embraced the freedom to express their opinions with gusto, but a few years of relative openness can hardly compensate for decades of distortion. This country’s political culture still feels palpably stunted.

It’s easy to understand why the generals and their hangers-on like it this way. A studied vagueness suits them well. With every reason to pre-empt frank discussion of half a century of abuses, they’ve been careful to keep control of all the country’s electronic media and most of its print newspapers. Over the past two years the ruling USDP has been frantically spending many millions of dollars on public works projects designed to cast itself as the party that gets things done (and to divert attention from the unpleasantness of the past). It’s also resorted to a de facto alliance with Buddhist ultranationalists to burnish its credentials as an ostensible defender of “race and religion.”

(Happily, most Burmese don’t seem to be buying it. How many will become clear in the days after the election.)

It’s somewhat less obvious why the pro-democracy opposition should be so coy about its own policies. At a recent press conference here in Rangoon, Suu Kyi (often known here simply as “the Lady”) repeatedly deflected questions that tried to go beyond her party’s well-meaning generalities. Who will be the NLD’s candidate for president? “I don’t want to answer that, so I won’t.” Her plans for negotiations on “national reconciliation” between the NLD and the military? “No, I’m not going to enlarge on it, because there are people who don’t want national reconciliation, and I don’t want them to start making counter plans.” Details of economic policy? “I think you should just read our election manifesto.”

Needless to say, that document, too, is shockingly thin on detail. When I asked a senior NLD official to clarify the party’s underlying economic philosophy, he groped around for a moment, then hazarded, “social democracy, or something like that.”

One could easily attribute the Lady’s coyness to an understandable desire to maintain maximum tactical flexibility for what promises to be a particularly tricky post-election period. Yet too much ambiguity also creates problems. When a journalist at the press conference queried her about her preferences for president, she dismissed the question as irrelevant. “I will run the government,” she answered. “And we will have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.” When asked what her own position would be, she replied with a laugh: “Above the president. I have already made plans.” Just in case someone might have been tempted to regard this assertion as a careless aside, she repeated it at the end of the press conference.

What precisely she meant by this remark remains unclear — and that carries risks. Burma’s current constitution may be a deeply flawed document, but for the time being it remains the law of the land, and the Lady’s remark runs directly counter to one of its provisions, which stipulates that the president “takes precedence” over all other persons in the country.

Her imperious disregard for this particular norm is hardly reassuring to those who would like to see her as a defender of democratic values. Her remark raised the prospect that, after Sunday’s election, the Burmese could end up being ruled by a leader that no one elected to that position — not exactly what one would hope from a politician who is always appealing to her compatriots to build the rule of law. And it also prompted some experts to worry that she may have handed the generals a convenient pretext to declare a state of emergency if they’re unhappy with the results of the election. She has, after all, openly rejected one of the constitution’s fundamental principles.

More broadly, Suu Kyi’s reluctance to answer questions about NLD policies feeds into rising worries about what some see as an increasingly authoritarian streak in her makeup – evidenced by her stubborn refusal to name a successor (even though she’s 70), her impatience with opposing views, and her recent unwillingness to invite non-NLD dissidents into her party’s candidate lists. Her refusal to take a clear stand on the plight of the harshly persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority certainly hasn’t helped.

Her defenders argue that all of this is hairsplitting. In their reading, the Lady’s flaws, real or perceived, pale against the magnitude of the historical challenge facing her country. Than Htut Aung, head of Eleven Media Group, the country’s largest private media conglomerate, put it to me this way: “We have only one person who can lead the changes, and that’s Aung San Suu Kyi.” Given this context, perhaps a bit of vagueness is to be forgiven.

In the photo, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at a press conference from her residential compound in Rangoon on November 5, 2015.

Photo credit: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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