RANGOON -- A few days ago, I took a taxi ride to a place called Independence Ward. The grandiose name is misleading. This part of downtown Rangoon, Burma's biggest city, is a slum, and its residents count themselves lucky whenever they manage to eke out a decent living. Jobs are scarce; public services virtually non-existent.
It's a place where people generally have little to celebrate. On the day that I was there, though, that was exactly what they had decided to do. On 97th Street, equidistant from the corner mosque and a Buddhist monastery, people thronged cheerfully as loudspeakers boomed out rousing tunes, the extraordinary ethnic diversity of this country on full display. Men with long beards and skullcaps rubbed elbows with girls in brightly colored saris and boys in T-shirts and jeans. And everywhere -- hanging from balconies, festooning cars, on stickers slapped on cheeks or clothing -- was the same symbol: a red flag emblazoned with a white star and a yellow fighting peacock.
That is the sign of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The Lady, or Daw in Burmese, as many refer to her here, wasn't supposed to show up on 97th Street on this particular day, but the people of the neighborhood gave a feverish welcome to her proxy, a local NLD activist who is campaigning for a seat in the country's National Assembly. "I want 100 percent of your votes," Phyu Phyu Thin called out. "Is that possible?" The crowd roared their approval. The boys working the loudspeakers cranked up one of the NLD's signature tunes: a country-and-western anthem (complete with yippee-i-ay's and cowboy whistles) whose refrain includes the line, "The leader of democracy is back."
On April 1, the people of Independence Ward will head to the polls to vote in a parliamentary by-election. It will be the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party colleagues have been allowed to run for office in more than two decades. Back in 1990, when the military-dominated government last allowed a relatively free general election, the NLD and its allies won 92 percent of the seats. That result stunned the regime, which subsequently annulled the results. This time around, as the country slowly transitions to more democratic governance, there won't be any room for surprises on a comparable scale. The 45 seats up for grabs amount to less than 7 percent of the seats in the Burmese legislature. So even if the NLD wins a landslide victory, it will still fall far short of anything like a workable majority, and its ability to effect change will be correspondingly limited.
Optimists say that this election marks a watershed. Since ex-general President Thein Sein came to power two years ago, he has steered a cautious course toward greater openness: releasing political prisoners, loosening state control over the media, and inviting Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to participate in the political system. "This is a compromise for both sides," says Tin Maung Thann of Myanmar Egress, a private group that aspires to train future Burmese leaders. The president, he says, used his power to change legislation so that the NLD could register as a political party, while Aung San Suu Kyi "put her faith in the reforms."
Yet there are evident risks. Some NLD supporters worry that the government will use their party's modest presence in parliament after April 1 to legitimize what is still a profoundly non-democratic political system. The existing parliament, for example, was chosen in a nationwide 2010 election resoundingly rejected by the international community as a sham. That vote was based in turn on a 2008 constitution drawn up by the military government in a process that bore few traces of genuine citizen involvement. The constitution, which remains in force, reserves a full quarter of the seats in the legislature for members of the armed forces. It's a situation that results in a curious paradox: Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues are taking part in an election that they themselves consider flawed. "I don't think we can consider it a genuine free and fair election if we consider what has been happening here over the last few months,'' she said in her pre-election press conference today, referring to allegations of widespread violations made by the NLD.