RANGOON – Criticized in the past for an apparent reluctance to promote younger members, Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has lined up some youthful candidates for the country’s April 1 by-elections.
At the party’s Rangoon headquarters, amid the din of volunteers packing party literature and selling paraphernalia, such as newly cast mugs and still sticky NLD t-shirts, sits Phyu Phyu Thin, a well-known HIV/AIDS activist and former student protester. She says that her experience assisting some of Burma’s HIV and AIDS afflicted motivated her to get involved in politics.
“Before, the government tried to stop us from educating people about HIV/AIDS, and the local authorities still sometimes interrupt our work,” said the 39 year old.
In response, if elected to the Rangoon constituency in which she will run, she says she will work on legislation to help people affected by HIV and AIDS in Burma. “Lots of volunteers and medical staff work at our centers, and I will continue this work if elected,” she said.
However, Phyu Phyu Thin says she is not solely motivated by the issue she is best known for. “Like almost all Burmese, I hope for democratization and want to work with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD,” she said.
After recent reforms undertaken by Burma’s government, it seems that country has its best shot at democracy since a 1962 military coup. Street-side shops across the city now sell NLD t-shirts and other souvenirs featuring the image of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Gen Aung San, revered by many Burmese as the man who brought Burma out of colonial rule after World War II.
Could the rising groundswell of support see NLD candidates score some seemingly improbable wins?
At 35, Naing Ngan Lin is the second youngest of the 48 NLD candidates running in the April 1 by-elections. A private tutor living in Rangoon, he will run against Burma’s army-backed ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), in its backyard in Naypyidaw, the country’s austere, Ozymandian capital.
“If it is a free and fair election, we will win,” he said, confident that even government officials working in the purpose-built capital will support the NLD. “Government staff know what is happening in our country, too, and they can hopefully vote as they wish,” he added.
He acknowledges that as a new and inexperienced politician, however, he will have to work hard to promote himself, and says that both he and the NLD have to hone their
policy positions on a range of issues before campaigning starts on Feb. 10. “I am interested in developing our education system, as this is the area of policy I know best,” he said.
He says it will be difficult for him as a candidate to compete with the well-financed USDP. “I don’t have much money for posters or such material,” he said. “But I ask my friends to contribute as much as they can.”
Party staff acknowledge that the NLD is in the process of “getting back on its feet,” and that they will have to work hard to make the most of party leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity among ordinary Burmese.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy in the party’s relatively pacific upstairs offices, party elders such as Tin Oo, now 85, agree that the NLD should give youth its shot. “Our NLD youth are clever and passionate people, and they will greatly add to our party.”
Downstairs, however, the focus is not just on the upcoming by-elections. Young volunteers run through a list of Burma’s remaining 270 political prisoners, according to numbers put together by the party.
“We give each one 5,000 kyat per month and if they are ill, we send medical supplies, if we can,” said Thuzar Lwin, 25.Show