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Myanmar's Pro-Democracy Opposition Leader Vies For Power As Elections Near


Elections are happening in Myanmar this Sunday. They are the most free elections in decades. But the country, also known as Burma, has a military-drafted constitution that bars pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. The Nobel Laureate is eager to win the election and take power, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Yangon, her focus on getting power seems to make some of her followers uneasy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Nee Pon Lant(ph) talks to voters in tea shops and homes as he runs for the city council of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. He's a member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD. He was jailed for four years until 2011 for his pro-democracy blogging.

Back in his office, he tells me that his party's ultimate goal is healing the wounds of half a century under a military dictatorship. But he says he can't really talk about that on the campaign trail.

NEE PON LANT: (Through interpreter) Ordinary folks don't understand when we talk about the party's higher policies. So what I talk about in my campaign is change. That needs no explanation. People want change. You can see it in their eyes.

KUHN: Nee Pon Lant is not happy with of all Aung San Suu Kyi and her party's decisions, for example, her refusal to let some younger pro-democracy activists run for office on her party's ticket. He says that for now, Suu Kyi is the only person who can lead the country's pro-democracy movement. But later, he says, the NLD will need some fresh blood.

LANT: (Through interpreter) In the long run, relying on Suu Kyi alone is not good politics. In the future, we need new younger leaders. But for now please trust and follow Suu Kyi.

KUHN: Although she's expected to handily win Sunday's vote, Myanmar's constitution bars Suu Kyi from being president because her two sons are British citizens, as was her late husband. But at a press conference today, Suu Kyi said that she doesn't have to be president to call the shots.


AUNG SAN SUU KYI: I'll run the government, and we'll have a president who will work in accordance with the policies of the NLD.

KUHN: If there was any doubt as to who will hold the top job if her party wins the vote, Suu Kyi spelled it out.


SUU KYI: I will be above the president. It's a very simple message.

KUHN: Yangon-based analyst Chaw Lyn Oohn(ph) says that attitude could threaten the country's former military rulers, who, he says, carefully designed the constitution and parliament to hold Aung San Suu Kyi in check.

CHAW LYN OOHN: (Through interpreter) The current system is based on military leadership. They wrote the constitution that way. It's very solid. It can certainly be changed, but it will take time.

KUHN: Chaw Lyn Oohn notes that Suu Kyi can only break free and change the system by striking a deal with the military leadership, and for now the military leadership supports the current government, not her. The other problem, he says, is that Suu Kyi is 70 years old and has no clear successor in her party.

OOHN: (Through interpreter) We should think about the NLD after Suu Kyi. But for now, the NLD's strategy is to take power while she still has strength.

KUHN: Unofficial vote tallies are likely to come out soon after Sunday's poll, but no new government is expected to be formed until early next year.

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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