Myanmar has an election this Sunday where only a small fraction of the parliamentary seats are at stakes — and yet the ballot is commanding international attention.
The closely watched election is seen as a test of whether the country’s rulers are sincere about reforms they have been introducing over the past year.
If the vote is seen as free and fair, it could prompt Western governments to begin lifting sanctions imposed during the half-century of military rule in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The vote is unlikely to change the balance of political power. But the opposition National League for Democracy, and its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have been actively campaigning for the first time in more than two decades.
A campaign rally by the party is a high-spirited and colorful affair. Sound trucks packed with red flag-waving supporters cruise the streets, belting out tunes praising democracy and Suu Kyi.
The party boycotted the 2010 general elections as a sham, and this is the first time the party’s candidates have been on the ballot since 1990. The party won that election by a landslide, but the ruling military junta refused to step aside.
Problems On The Campaign Trail
On the outskirts of Yangon, May Win Myint is campaigning to represent the township of Myangone. She is a retired doctor who spent more than a decade in jail for her leadership role in the party.
She complains that the military recently barred her from canvassing on its bases, and she accuses her rival of vote-buying.
“The worst thing is that my opponent has been handing out loans to residents here, and at the same time distributing pamphlets with rumors attacking Aung San Suu Kyi. So I’ve lodged a formal complaint with the election commission,” she says.
In addition, Win Myint complains, the voter registration lists haven’t been updated since the last election.
Next door, resident Hla Tun says this kind of irregularity is nothing new.
“This kind of problem is not unique to this town. It’s in all the constituencies. Some dead people’s names are still on the lists, while some living voters are left out,” Hla Tun says. “This has been going on for the past 20 years.”
Lately, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party has gotten its own sound trucks. Their color is green. They’re stumping for Win Myint’s opponent, former army officer Ye Htut.
“I believe the election will be free and fair,” says Ye Htut. “I want to win freely and fairly. Since our country is democratizing, I want to win democratically, and I hope the other candidates will do the same.”
He denies knowledge of any political attacks against Suu Kyi. And he insists a computer glitch is responsible for the dead people on the voter registration lists and says that has been cleared up.
Myanmar now has a nominally civilian government that has publicly pledged that the by-elections will be free, fair and credible. There are just 44 seats up for grabs, only 7 percent of the total seats in parliament.
But veteran journalist Khin Maung Htwe says that’s beside the point. The value of this by-election, he argues, is as a sort of referendum on the political reforms that began just over a year ago.
“In my opinion, the election is to demonstrate to the government, and to those who oppose reform, what the people want,” he says. “We’re voting for the NLD, not just to send Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, but to express the popular will.”
The government denies that there’s a conservative, anti-reform faction within its ranks. But Khin Maung Htwe says some officials and army officers indeed feel threatened by the political liberalization.
This week, army Commander Min Aung Hlaing declared that Myanmar’s military will retain its leading role in politics. This was a clear rebuff to Suu Kyi, who wants to limit the military’s role in government.