Change in Myanmar: Opposition gaining ground | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 13.02.2012
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Change in Myanmar: Opposition gaining ground

The campaign for April elections is in full swing for leading opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi. The military-backed government has assured visiting EU officials that the upcoming by-election will be democratic.

Supporters hold signboards to welcome Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi

The politics of Myanmar appear to be changing

For nearly half a century, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was in the iron grip of a military dictatorship. But since March of last year, President Thein Sein has been introducing cautious political reforms.

Aung San Suu Kyi is greeted by thousands of supporters on February 11 en-route to a campaign rally in Kawhmu township

Suu Kyi is the country's unifying figure

The country's military-backed government on Monday assured visiting EU officials that the upcoming by-election will be democratic.

"We have taken the necessary measures so that the upcoming by-elections will be free, fair and credible," said the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Shwe Mann in talks with EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and German Development Minister Dirk Niebel.

Watch video 01:07

Burma poised for democratic reforms


The European Union agreed in January to begin easing sanctions on Myanmar, lifting travel bans and pledging further action, if reforms continue.

"Once we are confident that the elections are free, then I am very hopeful that sanctions will be lifted," Niebel said after Monday's talks.

Key test

Now that the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is no longer banned, and the party's chairwoman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is free after nearly two decades of house arrest, Suu Kyi has been busy on the campaign trail in the run-up to the April 1 elections.

The polls are viewed as a key test for the country's budding reforms. A 2010 election, which swept the army's political allies to power, was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and intimidation.

Suu Kyi is tirelessly campaigning around the country. Crowds of people gather on the streets to get a glimpse of her because if there is anyone in Myanmar who embodies the future of the country it is the 66-year-old woman they call "The Lady."

German Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Dirk Niebel

The EU and Germany are closely watching developments in Myanmar

The by-election concerns only 48 seats in parliament and no one doubts that Suu Kyi and the NLD will win many of them.

The "Lady" has not been outside the former capital Yangon in 20 years due to her house arrest. In Myaing, 250 kilometers northwest of the city, she visited an Aids project and spoke to a seemingly endless sea of people.

"It is important to speak to as many people as possible, in order to understand everyone. I need the help of everybody to succeed," she said.

United against adversity

However, in Mandalay, the country's second largest city, Suu Kyi was not able to speak to “everybody.” The authorities reneged on a promise to let her have a rally in the local stadium. She is a force to be reckoned with. The entire opposition has united behind Suu Kyi, including Ko Ko Gyi, a student leader, who was just recently released from prison.

Watch video 26:14

DW Debate with Aung San Suu Kyi


"The by-election is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is a matter dear to our hearts and we support Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.

Zeya Thus, the deputy editor-in-chief of the independent weekly "The Voice," is sure that the opposition will remain united for a long time. Aung San Suu Kyi is the only person to lead it, he says.

"My personal opinion is that Aung San Suu Kyi will win a landslide victory in the by-election," predicts Thu.

Long way to go

Suu Kyi promises change and a move toward democracy. She says she will alter the constitution written by the military in 2008.

Aung San Suu Kyi (l) and President Thein Sein posing for a photo before their meeting at the presidential office

Suu Kyi is a force to be reckoned with

But what will the policies be of the NLD and the Nobel laureate, once they have won seats in parliament?

U Thein Oo is an NLD backer and the one who runs the show behind Suu Kyi. He she will practice her politics with or without the backing of parliament.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken with President Thein Sein, but she does not know whether she can work with the government. Her role is that of an opposition leader, and if need be, she will continue to play that role outside of parliament," notes U Thein Oo.

The 80-year-old sits in an office on the second floor of a cramped NLD party headquarters in Yangon. Important decisions on the future of Myanmar are being made in the tiny, bare room with opaque windows. The headquarters of the country's leading opposition party is, in a way, symbolic for the long road still ahead.

Author: Udo Schmidt/gb
Editor: Sarah Berning

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