Election fever in Myanmar

Under the baking mid-morning sun, hundreds of people, cheeks plastered with tiny National League for Democracy (NLD) stickers, stream to a swampy open field, buffaloes bolting from their path.

Most on foot, others bumping along on motorcycles and other vehicles - their excitement is clear here at the edge of Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar's northern Kachin state.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is coming.

It is the fourth trip the iconic pro-democracy opposition leader is making to Myitkyina - pronounced "michina" - where her party is hitting its stride in wooing the ethnic minority vote ahead of the country's Nov 8 election.

The charge of the NLD depends very much, if not solely, on the charisma of Ms Suu Kyi, who comes to the fray backed not just by her years of defiance of the erstwhile military regime, which incarcerated her for a total of 15 years, but also by her pedigree as daughter of independence hero and martyr General Aung San.

The vote of Myanmar's ethnic minorities is important for the NLD in its quest to get as many parliamentary seats as possible and then mount a bid to amend the military-drafted Constitution, in order to roll back the army's influence.

Like Myanmar's politics in general, since the transition to quasi-civilian government in 2011 and the opening up of political space, the rally at Myitkyina is a raucous affair. Big loudspeakers belt out rousing party songs at an ear-splitting volume. NLD security men link arms along the path The Lady, as she is widely referred to, will take as she approaches.

When she does arrive, those near the stage jostle for position, amid rising cries cheering Ms Suu Kyi, whom many call Amay Suu or Mother Suu. The security men are harried, pouring with sweat as they hold people back to clear the path.

The 70-year-old Nobel laureate appears in a Land Cruiser, standing through the open roof with a parasol shielding her from the sun.

She waves at the crowds, but loses little time in striding on stage and launching into a 20-minute speech followed by another 20 minutes of answering questions from the audience - mostly to do with the peace talks, corruption, education and the contentious Chinese dam at Myitsone, which locals are unshakeably against.

Her message in a series of rallies over three days in Kachin state: "When I visited here in 1990, there were people on the road with a banner saying 'We want Change'. That change never came. This time it will come, if you vote for the NLD."

That is, change to the Constitution which limits the role of political parties to an arena defined by the military, which holds the real power; the election is, in effect, for 75 per cent of parliamentary seats - the military has a guaranteed 25 per cent.

The Constitution also bars Ms Suu Kyi from holding the office of the President because she married a foreigner and their two sons are British citizens.

Backstage sit some of the NLD's 70 candidates in the state, for seats in the state assembly, as well as Parliament in Naypyitaw.

Among them is 70-year-old Robert Hla Awng, a native Kachin who worked for decades in the precious gems business.

"For 60 years, we have been going backwards with full power, and no brains," he told The Straits Times. "Five years in power is enough for the NLD. We will amend the Constitution. We already have the goodwill of the international community."

Another candidate, retired Myitkyina University professor of English Sheila Nang Tawng, chimed in. "We believe in her leadership. Ninety per cent of the voters will vote for her."

In contrast to the NLD roadshow, the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is decidedly low key, its candidates going from house to house and talking to people and distributing leaflets.

"I am on the way to a village to make house calls," 47-year-old USDP candidate Nyunt Win said, brandishing a party flag on the verandah of the musty old bungalow which serves as the party office in Myitkyina.

But the USDP is only in a majority because the NLD boycotted the 2010 election, and now it faces the moment of truth.

"They are good organisers," Mr Nyunt Win admitted. "But we will have public rallies soon," he promised. "And I am sure we will win."

Few buy that, however.

Dr Tu Ja, a 69-year-old retired dental surgeon who started the Kachin State Democracy Party, grunted in amusement when asked about the USDP.

"Nobody is thinking of voting for them," he said.

At the town of Waing Maw, some 30km from Myitkyina, Ms Suu Kyi's rally featured a large banner of her father, in a picture taken when he visited the area in 1947.

In the crowd was a cross section of the ethnicities which make up Kachin state - Kachin, Burman, Shan, Lishu and other tribes - as well as its religions.

They included Gurkhas, many thousands of whom live in the region, descendants of Gurkha soldiers brought there by the British in colonial times.

As she left after the rally the mood was euphoric, and cheers rose again. "She is our mother," shouted a young Gurkha man.


This article was first published on October 06, 2015.
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