Aung San Suu Kyi's Improbable Campaign

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The main opposition leader in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, is campaigning for a seat in parliament in her constituency outside Rangoon. It's a scene that seemed impossible only a few months ago, before the military-backed government began a process of change. Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Rangoon.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Just over a year ago, Nobel laureate and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Now, she's on the campaign trail in that country, as Burma gears up for highly-anticipated parliamentary elections on April 1st. Suu Kyi is drawing huge crowds to her campaign rallies.

And NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Burma's largest city, Yangon, to discuss the scene there.

Anthony, I understand Suu Kyi just visited the constituency that she plans to represent, if she's elected into parliament. What was that visit like?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, the place she's picked to represent in parliament is this tiny, little township called Kamu, four hours down tiny, rutted, dusty roads in the countryside. And yesterday, those roads were filled with honking, flag-waving supporters. Seemed like just about every villager was lining the road side carrying pictures of her and her father General Aung San, who negotiated Myanmar's independence from the British in 1947.

If you've never seen her in action, it's really quite convincing. And you just have to think, the military and the ruling party may have a lock on political party but The Lady, everybody calls her The Lady, really seems just unbeatable.

MARTIN: How is the government responding to all this, Anthony? Does the fact that she is drawing such big crowds is this making the government nervous?

KUHN: Well, first of all, really that Suu Kyi is not his campaigning for own parliamentary seat. She is campaigning for 48 members of her party, the National League for Democracy, who will be contesting in the elections. And it appears that sometimes her crowd-drawing power is making the government a bit nervous. She was supposed to travel to Mandalay, which is Myanmar's second city, but she was told that the stadium that she was going to use for her rally was not available on that day.

In fact, local media have reported that the government was nervous about her drawing huge crowds into the street. And in particular, Mandalay has a huge population of Buddhist monks. And they were afraid of, I think, scenes reminiscent of 2007's Saffron Revolution, when these Buddhist monks took the street in an anti-government uprising.

MARTIN: Suu Kyi's party actually boycotted the 2010 elections. The party said that those elections were unfair. Why does Suu Kyi want to run for elected office now? What's changed?

KUHN: Well, she herself says that she is taking a serious gamble. It won't necessarily succeed. But what she wants to do is get into the system and within the system, promote democracy and the rule of law, and repeal the unfair laws on the books, and revise the constitution. And she's trying to cooperate with the political liberals in the system, who themselves are gambling that if they work with Suu Kyi, that this will get foreign government sanctions on Myanmar lifted and jumpstart the country's economy, which is clearly lagging and far behind others in the region.

MARTIN: Anthony, from your reporting, do you think people in Burma see these as legitimate elections? Have enough reforms been made to give people a sense of faith that these will actually be free and fair?

KUHN: Well, a lot of reforms have taken place. We've seen, you know, an easing of media censorship, which has had a big impact on public opinion. We've seen the release of hundreds of political prisoners. And people also know that Suu Kyi's participation in the election could do a lot to give credibility to the elections and to the political reforms going on.

At the same time, people remember very clearly 1990, when Suu Kyi and her party won a landslide electoral victory but the ruling junta at the time refused to recognize the results and put her under house arrest.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Yangon, Myanmar.

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