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Suu Kyi’s new govt faces first test at Myanmar by-elections

The by-elections to 19 seats is unlikely to alter the balance of power but will test the popularity of Suu Kyi and her ruling National League of Democracy.

world Updated: Apr 01, 2017 13:32 IST
AFP
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi returns after giving a speech to her supporters during the election campaign at Kawhmu Township March 22.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi returns after giving a speech to her supporters during the election campaign at Kawhmu Township March 22.(Reuters Photo)

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government faced its first test at the ballot box on Saturday in by-elections around Myanmar seen as a barometer for growing disillusionment with her party’s first year in power.

The euphoria that surrounded the democracy icon’s landslide electoral win in 2015 has ebbed as her party struggles to push through promised reforms.

Discontent is particularly acute in ethnic minority areas where many see Suu Kyi as working too closely with the military, which ran the country for 50 years and still controls key levers of government.

With only 19 seats up for election, the poll is unlikely to alter the balance of power in a government firmly dominated by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

But the voting may offer a glimpse of the public’s view on the NLD’s first year in office -- a rocky 12 months marked by a surge in border unrest and disappointing economic gains.

Hundreds of voters lined up outside polling stations on the outskirts of Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon Saturday, though the scenes lacked the fanfare and enthusiasm of the historic 2015 election.

Chit Min, from Dagon Seikkan suburb, told AFP many of his friends decided not to vote this time around.

“But I am sure the NLD will win again,” he added.

Officials of the Union Election Commission sit while people cast their votes at a polling station in Yangon on Saturday. (AP Photo)

The party will face its toughest challenge to the north in Shan State, where tens of thousands have been displaced by recent fighting between the army and ethnic insurgents.

“There are many victims of war here and other ethnic areas now,” said Sai One Leng Kham, an upper house MP from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.

“Sometimes (the NLD) works without any understanding of what’s going on on the ground.”

Ethnic politics

In strife-torn Rakhine State on Myanmar’s western coastline, the party will face a strong challenge not only from the local Arakan National Party but also the military-backed USDP.

The USDP led the transitional government that took over from the junta in 2011, but was trounced in elections four years later that swept the NLD to power.

To the south in Mon, the NLD is facing a backlash over the naming of a new bridge after Suu Kyi’s father that many see as a symbol of the party’s disregard for minorities.

Myanmar’s economic and political elite, including the NLD, have long been dominated by the majority Bamar ethnicity.

“Now more people think MPs from ethnic parties should be in parliament,” said local Nyan Soe, who was among tens of thousands who protested over the bridge.

“The NLD has not been good for ethnic people since it took power.”

Suu Kyi herself is constitutionally barred from campaigning while in office.

A voter signs his name to get a ballot sheet from an official of the Union Election Commission at a polling station in Yangon on Saturday. (AP Photo)

But she came out to defend the NLD’s record -- while also conceding that progress in some areas had been slow -- in a rare national address to mark her administration’s one year anniversary on Thursday.

“We have had to face many daunting challenges,” she said, admitting the NLD had “not achieved the level of development that people have expected”.

But she stressed that her party was dedicated to rebuilding the impoverished nation and that this process would take time.

“I believe most people are becoming increasingly aware that they do not have to live in fear of the government anymore,” she added. “I see this as progress.”