Burma's Suu Kyi can't win election without youth vote

The generation that could carry pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi to victory in Burma's parliamentary byelections Sunday is the one born during the nearly 20 years she spent under house arrest.
Increasing numbers of young people in Burma have come out in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, which is running in parliamentary elections on April 1. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

As pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi nears the end of her campaign to win a seat in Burma's parliamentary byelections Sunday, it's clear that the country's youth will play a significant role in her party's showing in the vote.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner is contesting her first election since the country's military junta placed her under house arrest in 1989 and voided the results of the 1990 election, in which Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won 59 per cent of the national vote and a resounding majority of the seats in parliament.

The people who could carry the 66-year-old Suu Kyi to victory this time around could be those born during the nearly 20 years she spent under house arrest. According to some estimates, nearly 35 per cent of the Burmese population is between 15 and 24 years old.

The memory of Suu Kyi's nullified election win in 1990 "would strike a chord more with the older generation," says Burma expert Jörg Schendel.

But, he cautions, "we should not forget Burma is a very young country."

Country inching toward democracy

After half a century of running one of the most tightly controlled and longest-surviving dictatorships in the world, the Burmese government seems to be loosening its grip.

In 2010, the military junta released Suu Kyi from house arrest, and in January of this year, it gave the NLD permission to run in the April byelections.

Suu Kyi with hip-hop musician Zayar Thaw, left, and other young Burmese artists. (Courtesy of Sai Latt/Thitoolwin.com/Myanmar News Nowis)

Initially, there was a perception that the NLD was out of touch and appealed only to an older generation, says Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, but recently, the party has increased its focus on youth.

"I think they have recognized they should be reaching out to a younger generation of activists, and they have made a conscious effort to try and do that," Pearson said.

Suu Kyi acknowledged the need to engage Burma's youth during a March 2012 event at Ottawa's Carleton University in which she participated by video link.

"The young people in Burma have been cut off from the rest of the world for so long, and we need to repair the damage that has been done by these years of isolation," Suu Kyi told the Canadian audience.

Campaigning with artists, celebrities

Sai Latt, a Burmese-Canadian studying at Simon Fraser University, spent the last year and a half in Burma and says that Suu Kyi's campaign has employed the "unusual strategy" of engaging Burmese artists and celebrities to appeal to younger voters.

One of those well-known faces is popular actor Ye Deight, who has been seen campaigning with Suu Kyi.

The NLD is not only counting on Suu Kyi's personal magnetism to reach out to youth but is also fielding younger candidates, like 31-year-old hip-hop artist Zayar Thaw.

Burmese actor Ye Deight during Suu Kyi's byelection campaign in Shan state.

Thaw's music, which addresses the hardships of life under the military junta, has gotten the musician in trouble with the government in the past. But on April 1, he'll be contesting no less than President Thein Sein's in the Zabu Thiri Township of the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw.

Latt says a victory for Thaw would be "symbolic" for Burmese youth and the country's democracy movement in general.

While Suu Kyi has undoubtedly inspired people, Burma watchers are cautious not to expect too much from the upcoming vote.

On March 30, Suu Kyi herself warned that the election would be neither free nor fair because there have already been  widespread irregularities during the campaign, but she vowed to continue her candidacy.

Even if the NLD were to win 47 of the 48 seats being contested, the party would still only have minimal power in a government of roughly 600 seats, said Pearson.

"Having a nominally civilian government, which came into being last year, it's very much still dominated by the military," says Errol Mendes, law professor at the University of Ottawa.

"What Aung San Suu Kyi is hoping to do is put her foot into the democratic door, so to speak, and over time, convince the military that they should loosen their grip on the country."