Burma’s Most Unenviable Politician
Image Credit: Marc Veraart

Burma’s Most Unenviable Politician


Meet the most unenviable man in Burma. His name is Tin Yi, and he’s the David facing off against two Goliaths in April’s by-election in the constituency of Kawhmu, an otherwise unremarkable but idyllic village in the bucolic Irrawaddy River delta, just a few miles east of Yangon.

He woke up one morning in January to find out that arguably the most famous person in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, had chosen to run in his constituency. His third opponent, meanwhile, is former military man Soe Min, a member of the well-moneyed incumbent ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Suu Kyi has been drawing crowds by the thousands at her countrywide campaign rallies, while Soe Min has been offering free medical services with his traveling clinic in isolated villages in the countryside surrounding his constituency.

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But Tin Yi, 77, is a far cry from his glamorous political opponents: his teeth are stained red from his five-a-day betel chewing habit, he suffers from hypertension, what he describes as a swollen heart, and a gravity-defying belly. He says he would have been dead a long time ago if he didn’t have politics to motivate him. His low key efforts stand in stark contrast to Suu Kyi, who has among other things spent the better part of a year since her release meeting with diplomats, receiving awards, and campaigning among parades of adoring fans.

The impossible situation in which Tin Yi finds himself encapsulates the changes taking place in Burma’s budding democracy, a political landscape dominated by giants, celebrities and dusty relics of a bygone socialist era. These days, political campaigns are defined by spectacle, coercion and corruption, with ever-shrinking political space for smaller opposition and ethnic parties.

Suu Kyi had a small second home built in Kawhmu last month to qualify as a candidate there.

“When I found out Daw Suu was running in my constituency, I didn’t feel anything. I had already decided to run in Kawhmu several months before, and I didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do as a politician to be intimidated by Daw Suu. So I just kept on doing what I was doing,” Tin Yi says. “Of course I want to win. Nothing is decided yet, we’ll have to wait for April 1. Anything can happen.”

Anything indeed, apparently, as Suu Kyi’s party has already cried foul over egregious errors in the voter lists, which included the names of dead people, underage “voters” as young as 10 or 11 years-old, and people who appear to simply not exist in the village, according to her campaign manager and lawyer U Nyan Win. USDP candidates have been widely accused of bribing constituents not to attend NLD rallies, or even outright buying votes.

Though the election commission has promised a free and fair election, it turned a blind eye to the USDP’s dirty tricks during the 2010 election, when the party managed to edge out well-respected members of the opposition by stuffing ballot boxes with advanced votes. USDP party chairman U Htay Oo admits to failures in the past, but claims this election will be different. “We are still learning,” he says of his government’s relative inexperience with democracy. Of the bogus voter lists, he says they are simply honest errors of the understaffed registration offices.

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