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People Of Myanmar Face Obstacles Ahead Of Fall Elections


The Obama administration has hailed Democratic reforms in Myanmar as one of its big diplomatic successes in Asia. Four years ago, it began a transition from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy. Lately, though, Washington has toned down its enthusiasm. Signs have emerged that political reform is stuck or even backsliding in the country. The country heads to the polls in November. It could lead to the most democratic government it's ever had - or not. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Yangon.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: I'm tagging along with a group of volunteers who are going door-to-door checking names, addresses and other data on voter registration lists. This group is with the National League for Democracy, or NLD, the main opposition party headed by democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. After surveying several families, volunteer Zaw Win Phyoe shares his findings with me.

ZAW WIN PHYOE: (Through interpreter) Of the voter lists we have checked so far in these wards, 70 percent of the information is incorrect. Mainly, we're seeing people who have either passed away or moved overseas are still on the lists.

KUHN: Residents whose names or other information on voter lists are wrong may not be able to vote. The lists are not the only problem. In several border areas, ethnic insurgents are battling government troops. Voters there may not feel safe heading to the polls. Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint heads a voter education group called the People's Alliance for Credible Elections. He says that the country needs a lot of voter education, as some rural residents aren't even sure what elections are for.

SAI YE KYAW SWAR MYINT: They don't really understand what is the link between the elections, the political process and their daily life. They don't see any link between these.

KUHN: Many Burmese, though, are passionate about their politics.


KUHN: Three years ago, jubilant crowds cheered Aung San Suu Kyi as she was elected to Parliament just a year after being released from nearly two decades of house arrest. She was confined to her home in 1990. She and her party swept elections that year, but the then-ruling junta refused to recognize the results. By running for a seat in Parliament in 2012, Suu Kyi was essentially gambling that Myanmar's rulers are serious about democratic reforms. Independent analyst Yan Myo Thein says that was a tragic miscalculation.

YAN MYO THEIN: The current Parliament system we set up as a trap so she herself and the other Parliament from her party cannot do anything.

KUHN: That's because Myanmar's military holds veto power in Parliament. Also, Myanmar's constitution bars Suu Kyi from serving as president because her sons are British citizens. The military is unwilling to change that clause. Aung Thein Linn, an executive committee member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and a former army general, says the clause barring Suu Kyi from the presidency is not aimed at any single individual. It's a lesson learned from more than a century of British colonial rule.

AUNG THEIN LINN: (Through interpreter) We are worried about the future of our country. If a person under the influence of foreign powers becomes president, it could have an impact on our country's sovereignty.

KUHN: But members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party still hold out hope. Win Htein is a member of the NLD executive committee. He says that if the NLD and their allies sweep the elections and get a supermajority in Parliament, they could still amended the Constitution and make Suu Kyi president.

WIN HTEIN: We are total optimists. Our ultimate goal is to put her in the presidency - (unintelligible) president. That's our goal. And to wish (ph) other people too.

KUHN: Suu Kyi turned 70 last month. Win Htein says the NLD has to move fast to get her into the top job before it's too late. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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