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Let's turn to a country, now, that's been sealed off from the Western world. Myanmar is holding a special parliamentary election Sunday. The hope in the country, which is also known as Burma, is that a free and fair vote will persuade Western nations to begin lifting sanctions imposed during the long military dictatorship there. There's little expectation that this vote will change the balance of power in Myanmar. But NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the capital Yangon, that the vote could give a boost to recent political reforms.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A campaign rally by the opposition National League for Democracy is a high-spirited and colorful affair. Sound trucks packed with red flag-waving supporters cruise the streets, belting out tunes praising democracy and party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NLD boycotted the 2010 general elections as a sham, so this is the first time the party's candidates have been on the ballot since 1990. The NLD won that election by a landslide, but the ruling military junta refused to step aside.
On the outskirts of Yangon, Dr. May Win Myint is campaigning to represent the township of Myangone. She is a retired doctor who spent more than a decade in jail for her leadership role in the NLD. She complains that the military recently barred her from canvassing on its bases, and she accuses her rival of buying votes.
DR. MAY WIN MYINT: (Through translator) The worst thing is that my opponent has been handing out loans to residents here, and at the same time distributing pamphlets with rumors attacking Aung San Suu Kyi. So I've lodged a formal complaint with the election commission.
KUHN: In addition, Win Myint complains, the voter registration lists haven't been updated since the last election. Some voters who died are still on the lists, while some who are still alive have been left out.
At a press briefing Friday morning, Aung San Suu Kyi said that despite the widespread irregularities, her party would compete to win in the elections.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI: What has been happening in this country are really beyond what is acceptable for a democratic election. Still, we are determined to go forward because we think that this is what our people want.
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KUHN: Lately, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party have gotten their own sound trucks. Their color is green, and they're stumping for Win Myint's opponent, former army officer Ye Htut.
YE HTUT: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: I believe the election will be free and fair, he says. I want to win freely and fairly. Since our country is democratizing, I want to win democratically, and I hope the other candidates will do the same.
Ye Htut denies knowledge of any political attacks against Aung San Suu Kyi. And as for those dead people on the voter registration lists...
HTUT: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: That was due to a computer glitch, he explains, which as since been cleared up.
The leadership of Myanmar's nominally civilian government has publicly pledged that the by-elections will be free, fair and credible. There are just 44 seats up for grabs, only seven percent of the total seats in parliament. But veteran journalist Khin Maung Htwe says that's beside the point. The value of this by-election, he argues, is as a sort of referendum on the political reforms that began just over a year ago.
KHIN MAUNG HTWE: (Through translator) In my opinion, the election is to demonstrate to the government, and to those who oppose reform, what the people want. We're voting for the NLD, not just to send Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, but to express the popular will.
KUHN: The government denies that there's a conservative, anti-reform faction within its ranks. But Khin Maung Htwe says some officials and army officers, indeed, feel threatened by the political liberalization. This week, army Commander Min Aung Hlaing declared that Myanmar's military will retain its leading role in politics. This was a clear rebuff to Aung San Suu Kyi, who wants to limit the military's role in government.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.
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