By Kristina Rich -
PEOPLE in Kawhmu are excited. Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is vying for a parliamentary seat from their rural township in the April 1 by-elections.
“She seems so fragile yet full of energy!” gushed the proprietor of the town’s largest tearoom, on the only paved street of the dusty, unremarkable place 90 minutes drive south-west of Yangon.
At the market, the watchmaker’s display case was adorned with a large sticker depicting a fighting peacock and white star on a red field, the emblem of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
The vendor flashed the V-sign for victory. The Lady, as Suu Kyi is known throughout the country, will win, he asserted. “No other candidate stands a chance here,” the barber declared.
“April 1 will be a very special day for us,” predicted a roadside vendor of areca nuts and chewing tobacco. “She’s going to work for us and the whole country and help to improve our lives.”
Taxi driver Thaung Tin resembled a walking advertisement for Suu Kyi. The T-shirt he wore bore her image and sported an NLD pin. His cap had an NLD badge. Thaung Tin said he had been a member of the party since its founding in 1988.
“People are beating a path to our door,” he said. “We’ve run out of membership application forms and can’t print them fast enough.”
The election campaign in Myanmar is dominated by Suu Kyi. Her campaign tours around the country fill the front pages of newspapers and magazines.
Her likeness adorns calendars at the market and posters in shops. T-shirts with her image sell briskly. Her party’s logo is plastered on cycle rickshaws, in the telephone shop, everywhere.
It is as if Suu Kyi were a candidate for president, rather than for one of 40 vacant seats in the 440-member lower house of parliament.
Even if the NLD does extremely well, the pro-military government would still have an overwhelming parliamentary majority. Not everyone considers the personality cult surrounding the pro-democracy icon to be a good thing.
Although Suu Kyi earned universal respect for her uncompromising stance against the former military junta — she spent 15 years under house arrest and won a Nobel Peace Prize — many people doubt that she can single-handedly lead the country into a rosy future.
A graduate of England’s Oxford University, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics, Suu Kyi has an elitist air about her, contemporaries say. She is not regarded as a team player.
“Immune to advice” is the description by a female dissident who did time in prison and worked closely with Suu Kyi in the 1990s.
“She’s not exactly a dyed-in-the-wool democrat,” said a diplomat who asked to remain anonymous. “When you have a conversation with her, there’s an aura of having an audience with her.”
“The whole party is about her,” said Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of the Burmese weekly The Voice. “Imagine the party as a snake and Suu Kyi as the head. When the head is squeezed, the snake can do nothing.”
The party was paralysed when Suu Kyi was under house arrest, he said, adding that there were few young party members behind her to step into her shoes.
Voters are also constantly asking what, specifically, the NLD’s political platform is.
“We all really wish she’d speak more with the other democratic parties,” Kyaw Min Swe said.
“The NLD boycott of general elections in 2010 was a big mistake,” opined Nyo Nyo Thinn, a member of the Yangon regional parliament and the small Democratic Party (Myanmar).
“That’s why more small democratic parties emerged. If the NLD had taken part, we’d all have voted for it and our camp would be more unified.”
Physician and fiction writer Ma Thida, who spent five years in prison for supporting the NLD, takes a more conciliatory view.
“We might have our concerns, but let’s give her a chance,” she said. “She’s an icon. Who knows how long the special attention on her will last? As long as it does, the government will have to listen to her. She can move things.”
Meanwhile, party said Suu Kyi is recovering after she fell ill on the campaign trail, but must rest this week ahead of the by-elections. She cut short a trip to the south and cancelled campaigning this week after she felt sick on Saturday.