Supporters of the main opposition party in Myanmar, also known as Burma, filled the streets of the capital, celebrating Sunday a projected victory in closely watched parliamentary by-elections, as the party announced that its leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a seat in the country’s parliament for the first time.
It’s the first time in two decades that the National League for Democracy participated in an election. The results could help to consolidate support for political reforms and herald the end of foreign sanctions on a country ruled for the past half century by a military junta.
Just after dawn, Suu Kyi visited polling places in the remote constituency of Kawhmu that she hopes to represent in parliament. It was one of 44 constituencies at stake in this by-election.
Farmer Thein Oo, riding his motorcycle to the local polling place, said he planned to vote for Suu Kyi, but he didn’t think the election will change much in this poor and remote township, where most folks live in thatched bamboo huts, without electricity or running water.
“I’m not hoping or expecting her to do anything for us,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m voting for her because I respect her. She has made great sacrifices for the people during nearly two decades under house arrest.”
Suu Kyi was released in late 2010. This followed general elections, which her party boycotted, saying they were unfair. It wasn’t until last December, after meeting with President Thein Sein, that she decided to return to politics and stand for election.
A defeat at the polls for Suu Kyi could actually have been a setback for the government, which knows her cooperation is essential to getting foreign sanctions lifted. Besides Suu Kyi’s victory, the NLD also embarrassed the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party by winning seats representing parts of the capital, Naypitaw, where most residents work for the government.
Observers believe that as a member of parliament, Suu Kyi could embolden fellow lawmakers to push for more reforms and strengthen oversight of the government. Others are concerned about her ability to meet sky-high public expectations. History is strewn with charismatic opposition leaders who proved to be inefficient or corrupt once in office. Suu Kyi faces an uphill battle to accomplish ambitious goals, such as amending the constitution to limit the military’s role in government.
“What the military will learn, I’m sure, is that the future of this country is their future,” Suu Kyi said at a press conference Friday, “and reform in this country means reform for them as well.”
Chan Htun, a 90-year-old former member of parliament and Burma’s former ambassador to China and Canada, pointed out that the military automatically gets a quarter of the seats in parliament, and whatever they may think, they have to vote as their commanding officers order them to.
“The military has the power to take over at any time,” he said. “Actually, most of the people in the army accept Daw Suu’s ideas, but they don’t dare to speak out in support of her.” Daw is an honorific used for women in the country.
The military also stands in the way, Htun says, of Suu Kyi’s efforts to end the decades-old civil war between Myanmar’s government and ethnic rebels.
“The rebels are in a weak position,” Htun argues. “Only the ethnic Kachin rebels still pose a serious threat. So the army is not inclined to do the rebels any favors by entering into negotiations.”
There have been concerns recently about 66-year-old Suu Kyi’s health. She suspended campaigning ahead of the vote due to exhaustion. Dr. Tin Myo Win, her personal physician for most of the past two decades, says she has gotten through the grueling campaign by sheer force of will.
“There’s two parts,” he says, “physical and spiritual. And her spiritual health is always 100 percent. But sometimes her physical cannot follow what the spiritual and the mind want to do and everything.”
Suu Kyi rises at 4:30 every morning for an hour of Buddhist meditation, he says, and she remains sharply focused on her goals without concern for herself.
Suu Kyi says her goals transcend politics. She advocates a nonviolent revolution of the spirit in the tradition of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
“When I talk about a revolution of the spirit,” she said at Friday’s press briefing, “I mean a revolution that will help our people to overcome fear, to overcome poverty, to overcome indifference, and to take the fate of the country into their own hands. An election alone is not going to change our country.”
The official vote count will not be announced for several days, but Suu Kyi says the greatest victory in this election has already been achieved: the rising political consciousness of Burmese citizens, particularly its young people.