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Opposition Leader Bets On Myanmar Reforms

Ethnic Karen women welcome opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to War Thein Kha village. The area is in Kawhmu Township, which Suu Kyi is campaigning to represent in Myanmar's parliament.
Anthony Kuhn
Ethnic Karen women welcome opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to War Thein Kha village. The area is in Kawhmu Township, which Suu Kyi is campaigning to represent in Myanmar's parliament.

The military-backed government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, has surprised many skeptics with the pace of its political reforms — releasing political prisoners, easing censorship and making peace with ethnic insurgents.

But none of these reforms have won it as much praise as its efforts to mend fences with opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. After nearly two decades under house arrest, Suu Kyi is now aiming to work for democracy within the system by running for a seat in parliament.

Lately, she has been on the campaign trail, standing up through the sunroof of her SUV, gathering up bouquets of flowers and cheers from well-wishers. Her supporters pack the dusty roads leading to the township of Kawhmu, the rural constituency she hopes to represent.

Campaigning For Parliament

At the entrance to one village, Suu Kyi is greeted by ethnic Karen residents, chanting a traditional welcome. The farmers' mouths are stained a rusty red from chewing betel nut. Their cheeks are smeared with a white herbal sunblock. Kawhmu is deep in the countryside, a four-hour drive from Yangon, the country's largest city.

Suu Kyi says she chose the area for its ethnic diversity. The area was hard-hit by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and many residents were angry at the government's slow and feeble response to the emergency.

Suu Kyi asks the villagers for their support as they sit in a sun-baked field. She says she's wary of making campaign pledges, warning that the road to a better Burma will not be an easy one. The recent political reforms haven't changed much in Kawhmu. There's not much industry and not many jobs here.

"I and a lot of folks here want to vote for Suu Kyi," says 25-year-old farmer Sa Tun Lin. "I don't understand politics too well, but I want to choose someone who will work hard for the benefit of the people."

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Gen. Aung San, the Burmese national hero who negotiated independence from Great Britain in 1947. She didn't get into politics until 1988, and she has spent much of the time since then under house arrest.

Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted the 2010 elections as unfair. It was not until last December that she announced that she had changed her mind and decided to return to electoral politics.

Skepticism Over Reforms

Some of her colleagues, including the party's co-founder, 82-year-old Win Tin, think she is too optimistic.

"I don't know whether you can trust, you see, this government or this president and so on," he says. "You cannot easily trust the army. The army can take power at any time according to that constitution."

Win Tin, a journalist who spent nearly two decades in jail for his political activism, would prefer to build up the party before competing in elections. But he says he knows that Suu Kyi is "The Lady," and the only person with the charisma and credentials needed to lead the Burmese pro-democracy movement.

"We have some different opinions on some issues," he concedes, "but anyhow, I stand with her, I follow her and I support her."

If she's elected to parliament, Suu Kyi says she wants to revise the constitution, which mandates a leading role for the army and gives it the right to invoke emergency powers that can be exercised without any accountability.

'Joining Our Efforts'

Even if Suu Kyi and her party sweep the April 1 by-elections, the military and the ruling party will still hold an overwhelming advantage in parliament. Pushing any major revisions through will be difficult.

Speaking at party headquarters, Suu Kyi says diplomatically that she's not trying to get the military to give up any of its power.

"I would like the military to cooperate with us in building democracy in Burma," she insists. "It's not a matter of relinquishing anything, but of joining in our efforts."

Suu Kyi appears to be gambling that the new administration is serious about democratic reform. The government, meanwhile, is gambling that embracing Suu Kyi will persuade foreign powers to lift their sanctions on Myanmar.

Officials have raised the possibility that that once in parliament, Suu Kyi could go from lawmaker to Cabinet minister. Her party won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, but the ruling junta refused to stand aside. Whether Suu Kyi and the party could some day have another chance at holding power will have to wait at least until the next general election in 2015.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.