Aung San Suu Kyi

Pressure to deliver in Myanmar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am


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As Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to move from dissident to backbench MP, it is clear Myanmar's longrepressed politics have changed at a stroke - and voters are demanding their lives improve with it.

The old alignment that kept the politics of principle of Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy under the control of a military bent on power at all costs is ebbing.

In its place is the politics of policy. Both sides will be under pressure to deliver ideas and platforms to develop one of the region's poorest and most isolated nations. Those pressures were evident at the polling booths yesterday as some six million voters headed to vote in a parliamentary by-election that included Suu Kyi and other NLD figures for the first time in 22 years.

The NLD last night declared Suu Kyi had won her seat of Kawhmu, a poor farming area south of Yangon - even though official results could take days to confirm.

As word spread, thousands thronged the party's Yangon ramshackle headquarters. Crowds blocked the street, dancing to the party's signature Burmese rap and country songs, some even spilling into a tented tea stall used by the regime's photographers.

The NLD reported widespread irregularities, but few analysts expected a derailed election - given the widespread hopes for a successful poll to help end international sanctions.

'Look around and take a look,' said Ohn Kyaw, a 38-year-old teacher, as he walked towards a booth in 109th Street near Yangon's Mingalar market. 'See the potholes, the dust,' he said, as chickens scampered around bamboo shacks selling household basics. 'We live in terribly cramped conditions, the schools are no good and decent health care is a dream. Being able to vote for Mother Suu is giving us hope, but now she and all the parliamentarians must work to improve our lives.

'Everyone knows Myanmar was once the envy of Asia ... now it is a disgrace. Democracy has to deliver, because our generals couldn't.'

It's a common cry, and one that has apparently been heard by all sides during a campaign marked by an outpouring of goodwill for the 66-year-old Nobel laureate after years of house arrest.

President Thein Sein - the former junta general who took a gamble by freeing Suu Kyi and other political prisoners to allow them to stand - promised universal health care in a landmark speech last month. He hopes the by-election will force an end to Western-led sanctions to boost foreign investment.

With only 45 seats up for grabs in the by-election, the parliamentary dominance of his Union Solidarity and Development Party is secure - to 2015 at least.

Thein Sein mentioned increasing health care spending fourfold and doubling education spending in the next financial year, as well as continuing to ease press censorship.

'Have we already completed building a new nation where genuine democracy and eternal principles flourish?' Thein Sein asked in a televised address. 'No, we still have much more to do.'

Suu Kyi has also shown more policy nous, vowing to work to create the rule of law and for constitutional change to finally get the military out of politics for good.

But neither Thein Sein's ruling party - which is linked to the military - nor the NLD, has ever produced detailed policies. That is expected to change ahead of full national elections in three years.

Thein Sein and his advisers are tapping foreign governmental expertise on economic, social and commercial policies - a move expected to accelerate once sanctions are lifted.

One foreign diplomat said the government was close to hiring a foreign management consultancy to help the effort.

Given the difficulties caused by detention and exile, the NLD and allied groups of younger activists have struggled to draw up detailed proposals beyond their call for democratic change.

'Give us a chance,' said one NLD veteran staffer. 'We're really just getting back on our political feet - all this will come once we're in the system.'

Suu Kyi appeared to speak to the wider effort when she bristled at questions on Friday that she might struggle to live up to people's expectations. 'I want them to understand that the people must live up to their own expectations,' she said, stressing the empowerment of political involvement.

Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to Thein Sein, said the president wanted Suu Kyi to win so she could add her voice to national debates.

'Within the parliamentary framework, she can participate in active debate on various national issues,' Ko Ko Hlaing said.

'We can have our discussions in parliament, rather than shouting in the streets. This is a win-win situation for both Suu Kyi and the government,' he said.