It’s not too hard to see where Khin Soe’s allegiance lies. In the run-up to Sunday’s by-elections, the 60-year-old activist has turned his Rangoon home into a giant shrine to the National League for Democracy (NLD), covering it in red party banners and images of its leader, Burma’s democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
In constituencies across Burma, Khin Soe and his fellow activists in the NLD are nearing the end of their first election campaign in two decades – and they’ve done it in style. Restricted during years of military dictatorship from showing their support for “the Lady”, tens of thousands across the country have turned out to hear her speak. In Mingalar Tuang Nyunt Township, one of four competing constituencies in Rangoon, the party is in the throes of a full-blown celebration. The NLD’s red peacock insignia is plastered on taxi windshields, shop fronts and t-shirts, while campaign trucks filled with young party members drive through the streets blaring campaign songs.
“People are getting more interested in politics day by day,” Khin Soe says, sitting in the shade outside his home. “First of all, the people were a bit afraid to enter membership [of the NLD]. But later the political situation changed so people here have dared to join.”
The outbreak of Suu Kyi mania in parts of Burma is a symbol of the progress the country has made over the past year under the quasi-civilian government that took office in March 2011 under President Thein Sein, a former general. Before then, it was dangerous even to possess a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi; now her smiling image is for sale on t-shirts, key-rings, mugs, posters and countless other merchandise, and supporters can openly voice their praise. “Daw Suu is like a second mother to me,” says Mohammad Salim, 30, another NLD member attending a recent rally.
After winning a landslide election in 1990, a result that was annulled by the military junta, the NLD was cast into two decades of semi-legal limbo: key activists spent long periods in prison, and the Lady was kept for many years under house arrest. For many observers, the party’s involvement in these by-elections, after its boycott of national elections in November 2010, carries great symbolism, as well as being a significant moment in the country’s re-engagement with the West.
During a visit in February, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the United Nations’ special envoy to Burma, said the by-election would be a “key test” of the government’s commitment to reforms. “I must stress that the credibility of the elections will not be determined solely on the day of the vote, but on the basis of the entire process leading up to and following election day,” Quintana told reporters. Similarly, the European Union and United States have said “free and fair” elections are a precondition to any future rollback of economic sanctions.
Aside from the newfound freedoms enjoyed by the NLD, however, it’s uncertain just what these by-elections will mean in the wider context of political reform. Just 48 seats are up for grabs, including 40 in Burma’s 440-seat lower house, which is dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Under the 2008 Constitution, a quarter of the lower house remains reserved for military candidates, making it all but impossible for opposition parties to muster the 75 percent majority required to amend it.With the game already on their terms,the government can arguably afford to cede a few dozen seats to the opposition, and the election of the massively popular Aung San Suu Kyi – all but a sure thing – will be a heaven-sent advertisement for the reforming regime.
Maung Wuntha, a Rangoon-based journalist, says that with the West watching, and election monitors from across the world in attendance, the government is likely to play nice during the by-elections. “They will try to be tolerant for the time being, especially on these by-elections, so [that] in the eyes of international watchers, there will be a sort of free and fair election,” he says.