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CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Hopes, Fears and a Veteran’s Vote on the Stump With Suu Kyi

At a rally in Kawhmu Township, the National League for Democracy chairwoman proves that her appeal crosses demographic divides and, perhaps, reaches into the barracks.


KAWHMU, Rangoon Division — His crutch laid on the grass beside him, Kyaw Min Latt waited eagerly among an enthusiastic crowd of thousands who gathered at a football field here on Saturday to see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speak.

Amid the dancing and revelry of the red-clad masses that have come to characterize the campaign rallies of the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman, the 46-year-old was not of a background that one would typically associate with Burma’s opposition movement.

“I came here to support her,” said the former soldier, staring toward the stage where Suu Kyi was due to hold a rally in 30 minutes.

Kyaw Min Latt traveled all the way from the industrial township of Hlaing Tharyar on Rangoon’s outskirts, about a one-and-half hour trip to the town of Kawhmu on the southwestern outskirts of Rangoon Division. It is here in Kawhmu Township that Suu Kyi is recontesting a seat in the Lower House of Parliament in Burma’s Nov. 8 general election.

The ex-soldier, who lost a leg on the battlefield more than two decades ago, said he still remembers giving his vote to the NLD in a Karen village in Burma’s 1990 general election. Considered the country’s last free and fair election, the NLD won a landslide victory 25 years ago but the results were not recognized by the military regime of the time.

A quarter century later, Kyaw Min Latt intends to throw his support behind Burma’s largest opposition party once more.

“In the coming election, I will vote the same,” he said with a big smile.

A decorated veteran who was honored for his service after he lost his leg in fighting in Karen State, Kyaw Min Latt said he believes most rank-and-file soldiers also support Suu Kyi’s party.

That assertion, however, bucks conventional wisdom on how the hundreds of thousands of military personnel and their families will vote on Nov. 8. How their votes will trend remains to be seen, as does whether they will vote at all in the military cantonments where election monitors and the media may have access to polling stations curbed.

Commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing told military personnel and their families last week to support the “correct” candidates in the general election and advised a vote for candidates “who can protect race and religion” and are free from foreign influence.

That was widely interpreted as a swipe at the NLD’s Suu Kyi, who was married to a British national and whose children are British citizens.

“I know the soldiers have the same wish and they will vote for the NLD,” Kyaw Min Latt said, adding that while soldiers follow orders from the top in the line of duty, the Nov. 8 vote was about individual choice and a secret ballot.

It is certainly an interesting time for civilian-military relations in Burma, with Suu Kyi on Saturday reiterating her previously stated desire to work with the Burma Army, an institution founded by her father that she said she hoped would be viewed by the people with dignity and love.

“There are claims that we will seek revenge and act as though the army is the enemy when the NLD comes to power. I would like to let the public know that these words are wrong and are spread to attack the NLD,” she said.

“We have no intention to seek revenge on anyone. We will not work with grudges. We will focus on national reconciliation,” said the opposition leader, who spent 15 years under house arrest under the former military regime.

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Ahead of her speech on Saturday, enthusiasm for Suu Kyi and her party were on full view in the thousands of T-shirts, flags and headbands emblazoned with the party’s trademark “fighting peacock.” If those gathered at the football field are representative of the broader public, Suu Kyi’s support base appears to know no demographic bounds, with many child, middle aged and elderly party enthusiasts awaiting the opposition leader’s late afternoon speech since the morning.

“My mother, father, brother, sister and brother-in-law, they all will vote for the NLD,” said Hnin Wai Htet from Pha Yar Gyi village in Twantay Township, who will not herself cast a ballot because she is only 17 years old.

“Holding the guns, they are doing whatever they want. I don’t like that. And also they bully the students. I don’t like that either. If I could vote, I would definitely vote for Amay [mother] Suu,” she said, wearing an NLD headband and sporting a sticker of the party’s banner on her cheek.

“I believe in her, that she will work for the benefit of us as her father did,” added Hnin Wai Htet.

Nay Myo Lin, who like Hnin Wai Htet is 17 years old, and just two months shy of his 18th birthday and voting eligibility, said he hoped Suu Kyi would prioritize creating job opportunities for youths if her party wins power.

“Now, when we finish high school, we don’t have jobs to do, we just have the vendor jobs,” he said.

It was a concern later echoed by Suu Kyi during a post-speech question and answer session with rally attendees, when she was asked what the NLD would do first if the party is able to form a government.

“We need to focus mainly on creating jobs, which is really important for our country. It is mainly important to handle [the problem of] youths and the middle aged not getting jobs in our country,” the opposition leader said.

She also addressed audience concerns about the potential uncertainty that could accompany an NLD victory and the transition period that would follow between election day and the installation of a new government.

“It is natural that people have that kind of concern since they suffered in the 1990 elections,” she said. “But we can’t ever look back. We need to move forward bravely.”

Words easier said than done, Hnin Wai Htet told The Irrawaddy.

“Will she win? They have the army and they are tricky. If they don’t cheat, Amay Suu will win. I fear they will harm her if the NLD wins,” she said.