Strained ties with the military government could keep away up to 50 million new voters from Sunday’s vote.
|Some in the military-ruled country plan to vote on November 7 in order to avoid penalities from the state [AFP]|
Near markets, bus stops and busy areas in Yangon, the Myanmar’s largest city, groups of young people are busy handling out leaflets with a photograph of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her message saying “people have a right not to vote if they don’t want to”.
The leaflets are a call to boycott Burma’s general election on November 7, the first such poll to be held in this military-ruled South-east Asian country since 1990.
Those distributing the handouts are young people with the National League of Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s party that was disbanded and many of whose members are pushing for voters to stay away from voting precincts on Sunday.
“I want to spread Aunty’s (Suu Kyi’s) message among people,” said 26-year-old Maung Maung (not his real name), who is part of the NLD youth’s campaign on voters’ rights ahead of the polls in different townships here in Yangon division.
Maung Maung and his group continue to distribute their campaign materials, well aware that delivering any kind of political message without permits in public areas is against the election law.
Whether the boycott campaign will convince a sizable number among the 30 million eligible voters in this country of more than 53 million people remains up in the air. But there continues to be mixed sentiments about the vote’s utility as a tool against curbing the power of the military that has ruled this country for some five decades.
“If people are not going to vote, we’ll lose and then USDP (the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party) would take the rest of the ballots,” explained Thaung Tun, a candidate for a party that has broken away from the NLD and who disagrees with the boycott call. “If we lose, we can’t make any voice for the people in Parliament,” he said.
State media, including The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, have been busy saying that “to vote in an election is the right as well as a duty of every citizen”.
Whether to contest or take part in the election or not has been a divisive issue not just among voters but the different opposition groups.
Candidates from opposition groups, making up less than 30 per cent of the number of total candidates, are going to face the two strongest parties with links to the military – the military’s proxy party or the USDP, and the conservative group National Unity Party (NUP), which has its origins in the Socialist Party. Together, the two parties account for 70 per cent of candidate seats.
Against this backdrop, there are those who are giving the boycott call a serious hearing.
“People are interested when they saw (Daw) Aung San Su Kyi’s photo. They ask which group we are from and ask whether they should vote or not,” explained Maung Maung from the NLD Youth.
Four families of retired government officers support Suu Kyi’s boycott call and agree that the “unjust electoral laws” cannot lead to a genuine reflection of the public will, and have thus arranged to go a on picnic on election day. “This is a way we can boycott the election and show our support to Daw Suu,” said a 68-year-old retired government officer from the group.
For his part, 42-year-old independent candidate Saw Naing tries to get voters’ attention by using the image of the national hero Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father who led the country’s independence movement.
Saw Naing’s old green jeep has a photo of Aung San in front, and a patriotic song plays loudly while his campaign pamphlets are being distributed. “It’s just giving respect to our national leader. I just want people to remember him,” said Saw Naing.
In truth, images of these two key figures, father and daughter who have played historic roles in Burma, are being employed by groups for and against taking part in the Nov. 7 vote to take on military leaders.
While some may not want to vote, many government employees and citizens fear intimidation by the military if they do not head for the polling stations on election day.
“To give respect to my department head, I have to go to the polling station whether I want to vote or not,” said a university lecturer who did not want to be named.
A 52-year-old woman in Mayangone Township will cast her ballot because “I don’t want local authorities to recognise me as someone who is against the elections, but I won’t vote for any party.”
Said Khin Mar New, a homemaker from Saw Naing’s constituency: “There will be no difference before and after the elections. They (the military) will just keep power.”
A political prisoner, known as blogger Nay Phone Latt, passed a message to voters during his mother’s visit to his Karen State prison. “Mom, you don’t need to vote if you don’t want to. But please tell other people who want to vote to cast the ballot for any other party except for two: USDP and NUP,” he said. “If one person from our side could go to Parliament, we can at least hear what is happening in the Parliament.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Inter Press Service news agency.