YANGON — She may be constitutionally barred from becoming Myanmar’s next president, but that has not stopped opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from conducting an election campaign with a razzmatazz reminiscent of U.S.-style celebrity politics.
With the Nov. 8 vote just around the corner, the campaigning is lively, often eyebrow-raising and reflects the diverse and ethnically divided nature of the nation’s electorate.
This will be Myanmar’s first general election since a nominally civilian reformist government under President Thein Sein came to power in 2011. Voters now have the chance to take part in what is shaping up to be a reasonably credible poll after decades of military rule.
The incumbent, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party is facing off against countless smaller parties, many representing specific ethnic groups. But the USDP’s biggest challenge, by far, comes from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
In light of the high stakes and unclear protocol, the wooing of voters seems to know no bounds — from giveaways of live goats to allegations of financial bribery, with shiny campaign trucks barreling along the streets and disconcerted babies plastered in free stickers.
Yet social media is still subject to the whims of authority. In mid-October, two activists connected to opposition parties were arrested over Facebook posts deemed insulting to the military in general and more specifically, to the commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. They could face up to five years in jail.
n Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, some roads have turned into colorful NLD promotions — at least when the traffic jams allow. Scarlet flags emblazoned with the party’s “fighting peacock” symbol shimmy down busy streets attached to vehicles, many of which also bear NLD stickers. Even rickshaw drivers are flying the NLD flag.
Suu Kyi enjoys near-legendary status as the daughter of Myanmar’s late independence hero, Gen. Aung San, and as a stoic opponent of repression who opted to suffer years of house arrest rather than return to Britain to join her husband and children.
That family has been used to block her eligibility for the office of president, thanks to a clause in the military-sponsored 2008 constitution that bars those with a foreign spouse or children from high office.
Yet, there is no doubt that she is head of the NLD and that hers is a single, personality-based campaign. “The leader of the NLD government will have to be me, because I am the leader of my party,” Suu Kyi said in a recent interview with the Indian press.
Even so, she has also urged voters at times to “vote for the party not the candidate.”
If reluctant to share the stage with fellow politicians, Suu Kyi has welcomed celebrity supporters to play a part. The party has produced a DVD featuring famous Burmese actors endorsing NLD leaders and extolling Suu Kyi’s story. Even rap performers are adding their voices to the NLD cause.
Indeed, music is playing a key role in this election campaign. Across Yangon and elsewhere, posters of stern-looking candidates stare out of formal portraits — some barely distinguishable from each other. But parties’ song choices set them apart.
While the USDP is campaigning to tunes of military pomp and ceremony befitting the stature of the former generals at its helm, the NLD is reaching out to voters with upbeat vibes.
Suu Kyi’s party slogan, “Time for Change,” has caught the public’s imagination. The phrase is being uttered in all kinds of places, from a ramshackle downtown bookshop to processions through middle-class areas of Yangon. The words provide the chorus for the NLD’s spirited election anthem, which has become a major crowd rouser.
On a recent and controversial campaign trip by Suu Kyi to Rakhine State, where ethno-religious violence has bitterly divided many ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Muslim population there, party supporters were united in enthusiasm by the anthem.
As a band called Mother’s Musicians from Yangon blasted out the chorus from a mobile stage in the southern Rakhine town of Thandwe, the ethnically and religiously mixed crowd jumped around and danced ecstatically.
“I love Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” one young Muslim man yelled above the music. “She is so good.”
“She is the one we can trust,” shouted his equally exuberant friend.
Not every attendee at Suu Kyi’s events is equally committed.
“I don’t like Daw Suu. She is too pushy,” said Thu Thu, a hotel worker in her early 20s sporting an NLD sticker on her left cheek and a red-and-gold party scarf as a hair band. She turned out to hear Suu Kyi speak in her hometown in Kayah State because “lots of other people were going.”
Winning over as many doubters as possible will be crucial for the NLD. The military is guaranteed 25% of parliamentary seats, giving its associated party, the ruling USDP, a major advantage from the outset when it comes to retaining control of the parliament after the election.