As Myanmar gears up for historic elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party has recruited one of the country’s best-known activists. Ma Thandar has gained prominence nationwide fighting for justice after her husband, a journalist and former bodyguard of Suu Kyi’s, was killed last year while in military custody.
In her dark wooden house hidden away in a small back alley in Yangon, Ma Thandar cherishes the photos of her husband with Aung San Suu Kyi from when he was her bodyguard.
“Daw Aung Aan Suu Kyi consoled me a lot about the death of Ko Par Gyi, she sent me a letter and talked to me when she was in my hometown last year,” Ma Thandar said, referring to her husband by his alias.
The shooting of her husband, and the subsequent acquittal of soldiers accused of being involved, created a rift with the United States and left many questioning the legitimacy of political and economic reforms initiated by the military after 50 years in power.
Ma Thandar’s candidacy is expected to bolster the prospects of the National League for Democracy, which has recently come under fire for refusing to allow some of the country’s best-known activists to run under its banner. Critics say the move to exclude legendary leaders of the 1988 uprising against the ruling junta will isolate the NLD and fracture the opposition, allowing the military and its allies to maintain a tight grip on power.
Ma Thandar has been an NLD member since 1988 and will run in her hometown of Einme in the Irrawaddy Delta. The area was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and is currently inundated by floodwater.
Residents of the little town of Einme encouraged the activist and former political prisoner to run as a candidate. “I have been helping in the community to solve problems for women and villagers. Community elders and NLD members said they would support me [as a candidate],” said Ma Thandar, who co-founded the Democracy and Peace Women’s Network, which works to advance equality and human rights.
Days after her candidacy became official, she travelled down from Yangon to the submerged town to deliver aid, with an NLD broche pinned to her blouse.
Election campaigning is prohibited until two months before the poll and the floodwaters are an opportunity for candidates to connect with their constituencies. Hiking up their longyis and crouching down in small wooden boats, candidates including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein ventured out to show their support.
Party loyalty like that of Ma Thandar was one of the considerations for the NLD executive committee’s decision, which sidelined many 1988 student activists, including prominent leader Ko Ko Gyi, who spent more than 15 years in prison for standing up to the military and demanding democracy.
“The consequences will be large, it creates divisions among democracy camps, as it hurts the feelings of many dissidents who gave up their whole live for the democracy cause. Also many ethnic parties will remain suspicious about the NLD’s big party attitude,” said Aung Thu Nyein, a long-time Myanmar observer and commentator who spent 24 years in exile following the 1988 uprising.
The opposition party’s executive committee rejected the candidacies of nearly 20 members from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, whose members all played major roles in the uprising of 1988. Also rejected was Mee Mee, a friend of Ma Thandar, who wanted to run for her hometown, also in the Irrawaddy Delta. “It was their decision, not mine,” was all Mee Mee wanted to say about the case.
Other members from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society declined to comment. Only one of the candidates from the organization, Pyone Cho, will run for a seat under the NLD banner.
Aung San Suu Kyi responded to the controversy by saying that people should vote for the party, not the candidate.
“When I heard this, I was shocked. These should not be the words from a world democracy icon,” said Aung Thu Nyein.
In Pakokku township in Myanmar’s Magway Divison, several NLD members who protested against the choice of candidates were later expelled from the party.
“If she thinks she can go it alone by her popularity and her party-followers, it is bad,” said Aung Thu Nyein.
Courting the Military
Fears of a split within the party mounted after a remark made by Aung San Suu Kyi to journalists in the country’s capital, in which she called Shwe Mann, speaker of parliament and a former general, an ally.
Shwe Mann was the number three in the military and his performance in battle against ethnic armed groups in Karen state earned him the honorary title Thura. A 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Yangon released by WikiLeaks titled Shwe Mann “Burma’s Dictator-in-Waiting” and describes “his complicity in human rights violations.”
Suu Kyi’s remark followed a midnight purge of the speaker, supported by security forces that surrounded the party’s headquarters, from his position as chairman of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). A close ally of president Thein Sein, former major general Htay Oo has now taken over the party’s leadership.
The move came as the military reasserted its power over the ruling party, after Shwe Mann had backed a motion to amend article 436 of the constitution, which gives the military an effective veto of constitutional amendments. In that move, Shwe Mann had the support of Aung San Suu Kyi. The ousted USDP head had also blocked nearly 100 recently retired military officers from joining the party.
The NLD, together with the leaders from the ‘88 Generation, collected about 5 million signatures in May and July last year supporting an amendment to article 436 to diminish the power of the military in the parliament. that would also open the door to the presidency for Aung San Suu Kyi, now prohibited by article 59F of the constitution from becoming head of state because her sons are not Myanmar citizens.
Relations between Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann had been warming for some time, but critics fear she is now getting involved with the wrong man. Myanmar’s rumor machine has picked up steam again and tea shops are rife with speculation about the reasons behind the purge.
“I think Shwe Mann is really done for but … maybe it’s just all a political trick and they hope that now the NLD will see him as a real reformer and support him for the presidency,” said a veteran journalist, who since the purge has requested anonymity.
The party coup is a strong reminder of earlier days under the military junta, more specifically the ousting of former Khin Nyunt – an incident in which Shwe Mann had played a leading role, according to the WikiLeaks cable. “Sources claim Shwe Mann is a reformer, who once consolidates power, would open Burma to more international engagement. This could be nothing more than wishful thinking,” the cable states.
The current controversy has not deterred Ma Thandar from running for the NLD. “I also want to get rid of the 25 percent of army representatives in the Hluttaw, so the NLD needs to win completely so that we can get rid of this article,” said a defiant Ma Thandar.
Yola Verbruggen is an independent Dutch journalist living in Myanmar.