Suu Kyi opens campaign for Myanmar election amid virus surge

Cover Image
Photo credit Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi gestures while wearing a face shield, mask and gloves during a flag-raising ceremony to mark the first day of election campaigning at the National League for Democracy party's temporary headquarters in Naypyitaw, Myanmar on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Myanmar holds a general election on Nov. 8 and began a sixty-day election campaign period Tuesday, which may be disrupted due to a resurgence of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo)
By The Associated Press

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi raised her party’s flag at its office in the capital Tuesday to start an election campaign that may be disrupted by a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Her National League for Democracy party is widely expected to again win the most seats in the Nov. 8 general election and Suu Kyi is expected to remain as state counsellor, the de facto head of state.

The main opponents will be the Union Solidarity and Development Party, formed by former generals. Myanmar was under military rule from 1962 until a nominally civilian government took over in 2011.

Suu Kyi said her plan to open her campaign with a tour of her constituency just outside Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, was canceled because of travel restrictions due to surging virus cases.

Cases have spiked suddenly after Myanmar registered months of relatively low numbers. The health ministry reported 92 more cases on Tuesday morning, bringing the total to 1,610.

The western state of Rakhine, where the vast majority of the new cases have been found, is under lockdown, as are parts of Yangon. Restrictions are in force in several other cities, including the capital, Naypyitaw.

The Union Election Commission has not yet decided on a postponement of the election but has not allowed campaign activities in areas where a “Stay-at-Home” program has been implemented, which include the whole of Rakhine state and seven townships in Yangon.

The commission has said it will decide in October whether to allow voting in areas where armed struggles are active with ethnic minorities that have battled for decades for greater autonomy.

Wearing white gloves and a plastic face shield over a mask in her party’s trademark vivid red color, Suu Kyi slowly hauled her party’s flag up the pole to the blaring accompaniment of campaign music. Her aides observed from a distance, standing a socially distanced few meters (yards) apart from each other.

As she waited for her car at the end of the brief ceremony, she joked with the media, telling them they should cast one vote for her party for every picture they had just taken.

Voters in the November election will choose members of the upper and lower houses of the national parliament as well as the official state and region parliaments. There are almost 7,000 candidates from 94 political parties.

Suu Kyi is by far the country’s most popular politician, even as she has been scorned internationally for Myanmar’s oppression of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape the army's brutal counterinsurgency campaign in 2017.

Foreigners who admired her for her non-violent struggle against Myanmar's military rule, which won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, were sharply disappointed by her defense of the military's actions. As state counsellor, she does not oversee the military but she has repeatedly denied accusations the army committed genocide against the Rohingya.

The International Court of Justice in the Netherlands is investigating the genocide case.

The 2008 constitution that was implemented during military rule has a clause that bans Suu Kyi from being president because she has children who are foreign nationals; she was married to Michael Aris, a British academic who died in 1999. The post of state counsellor was created to skirt the problem.

Even though her party won a landslide victory in the last general election in 2015, it doesn’t have a free hand to implement policy. The 2008 constitution automatically gives the military enough seats in Parliament to block any constitutional change.