Suu Kyi in Election Mode

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Suu Kyi in Election Mode

Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable to see Aung San Suu Kyi openly campaigning. How deep is the change?

Reforms are biting fast in Burma. The sight of pro-democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi being swamped by supporters and lavished with flowers over the weekend as she begins campaigning for the April 1 by-elections was another extraordinary moment.

Under military rule, Burma has sunk to the near bottom of almost every index used by the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and any other major international institution to measure human development – and that includes standards for freedom of expression and association.

Until recently, it’s the type of scene that the Burmese authorities would never have allowed, and in some nearby countries – like Vietnam, Laos and Singapore – such overt displays by opposition politicians would still never be permitted.

It was her fourth political trip into the countryside. As a result, Burma’s place on the annual press freedom index undertaken by Reporters Sans Frontier has improved, rising to 169th spot by the end of 2011 from 174th a year earlier, overtaking Vietnam at 172 and China, now at 174th.

Thousands rolled up to catch a glimpse of the 66-year-old Nobel laureate. Her national League for Democracy (NLD) has announced they will contest all 48 seats at the by-elections designed by the ruling party to fill a void left by the November, 2010, general elections.

The NLD boycotted that poll. It had clearly won elections held in 1990, but was denied power by the military and Suu Kyi spent much of the following t two decades under arrest.

Now, much is changing, and President Thein Sein is in open dialogue with the NLD leader, who will stand for the seat of Kawhmu, an impoverished suburb of Rangoon where people’s lives were hit hard by Cyclone Nargis nearly four years ago.

Clearly the president still requires military support to ensure his reforms, that included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, are carried out. As such, the re-emergence of Suu Kyi would also require, at the very least, an implicit stamp of approval by the military.

She has already called for changes to the 2008 military-drafted Constitution, but even if her party does well at the by-elections the NLD will remain a minor voice in parliament. There are 664 Parliamentary seats, 440 of them in the Lower House and overall 25 percent of seats are designated for the military.

The generals have little to fear for the time being.

Still, her support is formidable. The influential 88 Generation Students Group – leaders of the failed 1988 democratic uprising – has said they will support her bid at the April polls.

The government also insists these elections will be free and fair. In fact, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin went so far as to say during a recent speech in New Delhi: “We are confident that we will be able to hold the upcoming by-election free and fair as in the last nationwide general elections.”

His comments highlight the gulf that remains between Burma, the rest of the world and how they see things. Those elections were roundly criticized by the West – the very people Sein is trying so hard to impress – as rigged.

However, a clean April 1 by-election – and success by Suu Kyi – will go a long way to restoring some of his country’s long lost prestige.