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A new Burmese MP's cautious optimism

3 min

Former political prisoner Phyo Min Thein, now a new member of the Burmese parliament with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, is cautiously optimistic about the future after his country's "first step of democracy".


By Peter Hawkins

In pictures: confusion at the polling station

Phyo Min Thein is a veteran of Burmese politics, despite only just being elected to office.

During his time at Rangoon University in the late 1980s, he helped organise secret student union groups and took part in the country's bloody 1988 uprising, in which thousands of protesters were killed.

He was arrested and imprisoned in 1990 and released in 2005.

His campaign in the recent local election focused on the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) three main principles: to end the conflict in Kachin state and bring peace to the country, to create a lawful society and to change the rules of parliament.

He says other politicians have made diverse promises, including improving electricity supplies to people in his constituency of Hlegu, but he was not going to make empty gestures.

He has, however, promised to improve employment prospects for his agricultural constituency of 130,000 voters, 45 kilometres from Rangoon.

“This is the first step of democracy,” he said. “I didn’t make a lot of promises to the people like other parties. If the NLD cannot do these things, then our country is not a democracy.”

He added, “compared with 2010, this time there has been more freedom in the campaign. I can campaign freely.”

'Truth is power'

Some subjects still remain closed to discussion.

“There is still censorship, especially when talking about politics and the 1988 student generation,” he said.

Since it held widely discredited and NLD-boycotted elections in 2010, the Burmese government has released political prisoners and eased press restrictions.

However, Phyo Min Thein, who refused to take part in the 2010 elections, still counts 100 friends in prison.

“The government says they are criminals," he said, "but these people are not criminals. They made them out to be bombers, but they are prisoners of conscience."

As thousands of supporters come out on the streets to celebrate the victory of the NLD, Phyo Min Thein is guarded about whether the party can live up to the belief invested in it.

"As a group we can work for truth," he said. "Truth is power. We can do these things. The people want the party and will also support us."

NLD activists spent the day dealing with complaints about election irregularities. One local branch reported 50 cases of registered names that were missing from the final electoral roll, leaving them unable to vote.

One family reported to the NLD that their four-year-old son appeared on the list, while his father did not. Some cases of dead people appearing on the list were also reported.

Phyo Min Thein said he has seen difficulties with the voting process. He said that the government was “trying to make the elections free this time”, but that local branches might take it upon themselves to disrupt the process.

An election official at the constituency’s first polling station in Myoma admitted irregularities, but blamed them on computer error.

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