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Burmese Candidates Brace for a Day at the Polls

Le Le Aye, center, a candidate of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), waves to supporters during her campaign for the April 1 by-election in Rangoon, Burma, March 29, 2012.
Le Le Aye, center, a candidate of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), waves to supporters during her campaign for the April 1 by-election in Rangoon, Burma, March 29, 2012.
Danielle Bernstein

Burmese voters head to the polls on Sunday for a by-election that could see opposition candidates, including democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, voted into a government they shunned for decades.

This demonstration of traditional Burmese martial arts is a campaign event for a member of Burma’s military aligned ruling party known as the USDP.

In the last elections in 2010, opposition groups and Western governments condemned the vote as fraudulent.

Ruling party candidate Lay Lay Aye blames inexperience for past irregularities and denies accusations that her party bribed or threatened voters.

“I believe that this coming election will be free and fair but I’m worried about potential riots or violence," she said. "There are other parties who are extremely active. So it will be good to see them under control.”

Lay Lay Aye is referring to Aung San Suu Kyi, who has returned to politics after 20 years in and out of house arrest. Her anticipated election is expected to be a critical political shift as she joins a government she once opposed.

Other opposition members are hopeful that participating in a system that has been flawed is a way to help change it.

Thu Wai is the chairman of the Democratic Party of Myanmar who cried foul after stuffed ballot boxes appeared in the final hours of voting in 2010, when he lost the election.

“I’m not angry, I must participate again it’s very important. Of course there will be cheating, but maybe less this time, and the next time will be less again,” he said.

Phyu Phyu Thin, a rising star in the National League for Democracy, runs a free HIV/AIDS clinic in the outskirts of town.  She is another high profile candidate who remains worried about the integrity of the vote.

“On one hand, people are getting more active, but at the same time on the other hand people are more worried," she said. "It is because of the experience that people had in 2010. Many people asked, “What’s going to happen? What will go wrong? What will become of our votes?”

The 48 seats being contested in Sunday’s vote will not change the balance of power in parliament. But political analyst Maung Wuntha of the People’s Age, a Rangoon-based weekly journal, says he still believes the election is important.

“It’s true. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can change the atmosphere of the parliament. She is seen as being someone who speaks for the people, and she can make the parliament a more open place,” he said.

Despite the doubts about fairness, all observers consider the by-election another vital step on Burma’s uncertain road to reform.

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