Myanmar dissident Aung San Suu Kyi denounced irregularities in the first vote her political party is contesting since 1990, a ballot Western nations are closely watching as they consider lifting sanctions.
Suu Kyi is among those standing in by-elections tomorrow for 43 of the legislature’s 664 seats to fill posts vacated by lawmakers who joined President Thein Sein’s government. Her National League for Democracy party questioned the fairness of the election, citing vote-buying, incorrect voter lists and an incident where a candidate was almost hit with a betel nut.
“I don’t think we can consider it a genuinely free and fair election if we take into consideration what has been going on in the last couple of months,” Suu Kyi told more than 300 journalists gathered yesterday at her lakeside home in Yangon. “But still I will be willing to work toward national reconciliation, so we will try to tolerate what has happened.”
Prospects of democratic foundations in the nation of 64 million people between China and India encouraged the U.S. to consider easing sanctions, with companies from General Electric Co. to Standard Chartered Plc awaiting opportunities to invest. At stake for Thein Sein is dismantling a legacy of six decades of isolation that left Myanmar with per capita gross domestic product of just 14 percent of neighbor Thailand’s.
The elections “aren’t going to fundamentally shift power in the country, but they are hugely important in representing a historic compromise” between Suu Kyi’s party and the government, said Thant Myint-U, an author of two books on Myanmar whose grandfather, U Thant, was the first Asian head of the United Nations. “It will end a long chapter in Burmese history.”
A win would allow Suu Kyi, 66, to take legislative office for the first time after spending 15 years under house arrest as the military-led regime repressed opposition. Daughter of a leader in Myanmar’s independence campaign from Britain, she won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 and became a focus of foreign perceptions of the nation’s politics.
Suu Kyi emerged on Myanmar’s political scene in 1988, when she returned to the country to care for her ailing mother after years of living overseas. Known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady,” she was first detained prior to 1990 elections in which her party won about 80 percent of seats for a committee that was designed to draft a new constitution. The military rejected the results.
Suu Kyi refused to accept an army-drafted constitution in 2008 and boycotted an election two years later in which Thein Sein’s party won a majority. A meeting between Suu Kyi and the president in August led to her party rejoining the political system.
In the 90-minute briefing yesterday, Suu Kyi said her party will accept the results if the will of the people is “fairly reflected.” She called the irregularities “beyond what is acceptable for democratic selection” while noting that her supporters want her to press ahead.
“We have been energized and encouraged greatly by the response of our people, by their eagerness and their preparedness to take part in the political process of their country,” she said. “It is the rising political awareness of the people that we regard as our biggest triumph.”
Thein Sein called on all political parties to accept the results in a March 24 speech published in the state-run New Light of Myanmar.
“We all need to work together to ensure that the outcome is accepted by all the people,” he said.
The shift toward greater political openness is moving in parallel with efforts to rewrite investment laws and unify multiple exchange rates that impede trade. The country will adopt a managed float of its currency on April 1, scrapping a 35-year fixed rate in a move to modernize the economy, the central bank said in a March 28 statement.
Rich in natural gas, gold and gemstones, Myanmar represents one of Asia’s last untapped frontier markets, attracting investors such as Jim Rogers, the chairman of Rogers Holdings, who predicted a global commodities rally in 1999. Myanmar’s opening is “a game-changer,” Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch said in a March 29 research note.
“Opening up more would send a signal all over the world that Myanmar would be ready to take outside investment,” Anon Sirisaengtaksin, chief executive officer of PTT Exploration & Production Pcl, said in a March 27 interview. “It’s quite prolific in terms of natural resources so it’s a great opportunity.”
American sanctions ban investment in Myanmar and imports from the country, restrict money transfers, freeze assets and target jewelry with gemstones originating in the nation. The European Union bans weapons sales and mineral imports.
The by-elections “are a tangible moment in the path to reform, just like the release of political prisoners in January,” Derek Mitchell, U.S. special envoy to Myanmar, told reporters on March 15. “We will respond after the elections in an appropriate fashion if we believe they were held free, fair and transparent.”
Myanmar invited a limited number of election monitors and journalists from the U.S., European Union and neighboring countries. Voters will pick from 17 parties and seven independent candidates to fill 37 seats in the lower house, six in the upper house and two for regional assemblies, according to Network Myanmar, a U.K.-based organization that promotes reconciliation in the country.
“The credibility of Sunday’s vote will not be determined solely on the day, but in the lead-up to and following election day,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said yesterday in a statement.
Elections in three constituencies in Kachin state, home to a violent ethnic rebellion, were suspended due to security concerns. Myanmar’s army has displaced 75,000 ethnic Kachins since last June in an area along the Chinese border, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a March 20 report, underscoring the challenges that remain for Thein Sein as he aims to make peace with political rivals.
“Myanmar will become a new model for other countries to get through a transition with stability and irreversibility,” Nay Zin Latt, one of nine advisers to Thein Sein, said by e-mail. “The 2012 by-elections are much more free.”
Suu Kyi has appeared on state-run television and traveled throughout the country during the campaign period, falling ill on two occasions from exhaustion. Tens of thousands of people holding banners and waving flags attended one of her speeches in Kawhmu township south of Yangon where she is vying for a seat.
“The last 20 years, herself and the party were really suffering based on confrontation and aggressive measures,” said Nyo Ohn Myint, a former bodyguard for Suu Kyi who fled to Thailand and still faces political charges in Myanmar. “This is the time. We cannot look back and blame each other. Why don’t we move forward.”