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Leading activists and academics in Burma are rallying behind opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi ahead of the parliamentary elections slated for 8 November, hoping that a resounding win for her party will help force the military to loosen its grip on power.
Frustrated by failed efforts to change the constitution and remove the military’s legislative veto, several of the country’s best-known reformists said they would run as candidates for the popular National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
The election will be the first nationwide ballot since the end of direct military rule in 2011, since when the country, also known as Myanmar, has undergone significant political and economic liberalisation.
Yet even if democracy activists help the NLD do well, a constitution guaranteeing 25 percent of seats for unelected members of the armed forces that is enough to block change to the contentious charter, means they face an uphill struggle.
The constitution bars Nobel laureate and opposition figurehead Suu Kyi, released from lengthy house arrest in 2010, from becoming president, another hurdle to reformists’ ambitions to open up the country’s political system further.
“Failure to amend the constitution in parliament made us realise how powerful the military is and the level of difficulty the NLD is facing,” said Aung Thu, rector of Rangoon University, who said he would join the NLD in August.“University rectors, professors and famous people are now joining the NLD, and we can say with pride that it’s an intellectual party”
Also offering to run for parliament are Nay Phone Latt, an influential free speech advocate, and Naw Susanna Hla Hla Soe, head of the Karen Women’s Action Group, a well-known female empowerment organisation.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 1988 pro-democracy students movement who spent 17 years as a political prisoner, plans to represent the NLD, party officials said.
The NLD’s commitment could broaden the appeal of a party some see as too reliant on former jailed dissidents who are idealistic but not always educated in establishment politics.
“University rectors, professors and famous people are now joining the NLD, and we can say with pride that it’s an ‘intellectual party’,” said Su Sandi Aung, a 26-year-old interpreter speaking in the commercial capital Rangoon, known also as Yangon.
The final candidate list will be selected by the NLD’s central executive committee.
While many of the new candidates have been loosely affiliated with the NLD in the past, the impasse over the constitution has galvanized reformers to take the battle directly to parliament.
Suu Kyi has said winning the election would increase the NLD’s leverage over the military. That is despite the fact that last month, any significant motions to amend the charter failed to get enough votes among lawmakers.
Parliamentary seats reserved for the military are chosen by commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The military says it needs to maintain its role in the political arena to ensure a disciplined transition to democracy and prevent fighting with ethnic groups from causing wider instability in Burma.
One clause in the constitution bars individuals with children who are foreign citizens from becoming president. That makes Suu Kyi, who has two children who are British, ineligible.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who has invested significant effort in promoting democracy in Burma, said on a visit in November that the law “doesn’t make much sense”.
Burmese voters cast ballots for representatives of the bicameral parliament and regional chambers. The president is chosen by lawmakers and appoints a cabinet, although key ministries remain the remit of the armed forces.
President Thein Sein, a former junta leader, was chosen by lawmakers to lead Burma’s quasi-civilian government in 2011, ending 49 years of direct army rule that saw the country’s economy wilt under sanctions and mismanagement.
He has not ruled out a possible second term.
Min Aung Hlaing has been touted as another possible candidate, while the NLD has yet to identify who might run for the job in Suu Kyi’s absence, if anyone.
The NLD won the 1990 election by a landslide, but the then ruling junta did not recognise the result.
Suu Kyi’s party boycotted 2010 polls because of “unfair and unjust” rules. The vote was widely regarded as fraudulent.
The NLD later agreed to join the political system, winning 43 parliamentary seats in a by-election a year later.
“The NLD … had an impact in parliament even when they had only 43 seats,” said Zin Mar Aung, co-founder of the Yangon School of Political Science, who hopes to represent the NLD in the November ballot.
“If opposition groups join the NLD, it will get stronger.”
The NLD faces competition from the deep-pocketed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), as well as several parties representing ethnic minorities.
That will make winning more than 51 percent of the 664 seats in the country’s joint parliament “almost impossible,” according to Ko Ni, a legal adviser to the NLD on constitutional reform.
It needs to work with ethnic parties and the USDP, he said, and cautioned against the NLD focussing solely on eroding the military’s political clout.
“We don’t need to get stuck on this one.”