Breakaway Party Hopes Suu Kyi's Popularity Rubs Off
Two pick-up trucks decorated with red khamauks – traditional Burmese cone-shaped bamboo hats worn by farmers for shade from the sun – drove into a narrow lane dotted with houses built closely together, playing lively music from speakers on board.
As they pulled over, a 70-year-old woman, lifting her loose gray hair with one hand, ran out of the compound of a one-story house. The eyes of the old woman were fixed on a group of young people in the trucks, holding pieces of paper.
With a smile, the old woman greeted the girl who passed her a card imprinted with the picture of the cone-shaped hat. Looking at the people who also ran out of their houses to ask for the picture, the old woman waved hers and shouted, "I'm gonna vote for khamauk. Because I love her!"
She, of course, is Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent the last 15 years under house arrest after she and her National League for Democracy, known as the NLD, embarrassed Burma's junta with an overwhelming victory in the 1990 elections. She is scheduled to be released from her latest term of house arrest on Nov. 13 – three days after today's widely criticized national elections.
The National League for Democracy used the khamauk as its party logo en route to a landslide victory in which the party won 392 out of 484 parliamentary seats. The party was never allowed to govern.
Twenty years later, the NLD chose not to take part in the 2010 elections. However, some former party members formed the National Democratic Front (NDF) and are using khamauk with a star as their party logo during this campaign. The new logo is nearly the same as the NLD's in 1990.
This strong interest in khamauk has enlivened Burma's lackluster polls. It is also regarded by some as proof that Aung San Suu Kyi is still important to the citizens of Burma, although the military regime has used various means to remove her from the political scene.
"She does appear to have huge relevancy here," British Ambassador Andrew Heyn said. "Everybody is talking about her and her party was the landslide winner of the '90 elections. What she embodies is hope and unity, and both are in pretty short supply."
Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for more than 15 years, and was refused permission to participate in the 2010 election. She and the NLD party chose to boycott the election, saying it is not free or fair.
U Nyan Win, spokesman for the NLD, and the one who meets with her most during her house arrest, said, "Daw Suu knows everything about the use of her name and her party's khamauk logo in the campaign. So the NLD made an announcement with her consent saying the NDF has nothing to do with the NLD, and it's totally wrong to say the NDF and the NLD are the same."
However, NDF Leader Khin Maung Swe, himself a former member of the executive committee of the NLD, said, "The party head office hasn't instructed anyone to say the NDF and Daw Suu are the same. We are not going to use her image. I think they (NDF candidates using the khamauk logo) mean Daw Suu, as a democracy leader, and the NDF candidates, are members of the same democratic movement."
However, the NDF leader seems to be drawing a fine line.
Eighteen-year-old Ma Moe Zin spoke about her experience as an NDF campaign worker.
"I have distributed leaflets in many townships," she said.
"Many people encouraged us. People asked if we are the same as the NLD, or if the khamauk is the same as Daw Suu's. We said it is the same. The NDF has been set up because Aunty Suu can't take part. Just tick next to the khamauk."
U Than Wai, a mechanic in South Okkalapa Township, not far from downtown Rangoon, asked a woman from the NDF if her party is the same as Suu Kyi's. "I'm willing to vote for her (Suu Kyi)," he said. "So I asked her that question. Or else I would vote for the wrong party."
Laughing, the woman from the party told U Than Wai the parties were the same.
U Khin Maung Swe confidently defended his party's use of the logo.
"Although this khamuak logo does not represent the NLD, there will be people voting for khamauk because they know khamauk and the people are inseparable. We chose khamauk as a political tactic. We knew that NLD would object to it," he said.
The political tactic seemed to be working to the advantage of at least one NDF candidate.
Although not well known herself, Nam Khan Dane, a female candidate for the NDF, said the popular khamauk logo has been a great help in her campaigns, while handing out leaflets.
"The area I'm running in is new to me. It's a lot better having khamauk. I must say it makes my chances better," she said.
Nay Myo Wai, General-Secretary of the Peace and Diversity Party, was critical of the use of khamauk during this campaign.
"At a time when people are trying hard to listen to what candidates are saying, parties that are trying to get support by using a once-powerful image are taking advantage of weakness. How many out of the 29 million voters do know that Daw Suu is not taking part? There will be confusion."
Confusion or not, political candidate U Tun Shwe, of the Wunthanu NLD breakaway party, promised voters his top priority is the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. "She is inseparable from Burma politics," he said.