Aung San Suu Kyi stirringly called for “freedom from fear” in her first televised campaign speech, but some of her rivals have more prosaic issues on their minds – like fish ponds and bean crops.
In a country ruled by the military for more than half a century, Burma’s opposition parties are still adjusting to life under a new quasi-civilian government, which is encouraging them to speak out.
While Nobel laureate Suu Kyi opted for soaring rhetoric in her first bid for parliament, many candidates standing for the 45 seats up for grabs in Sunday’s by-elections addressed the concerns of ordinary voters.
In his official campaign broadcast, which was also carried in state newspapers, Shan Nationalities Democratic Party member Sai Bo Aung said the party aimed “to follow pragmatism rather than pursuing utopia.”
He said the party – which has strong support among the Shan, the second biggest ethnic group – aimed to “build a democratic nation through democratic means”, but stressed that ensuring the livelihood of farmers was a priority.
Likewise National Political Alliances candidate Kyaw Swa Soe was firmly focused on the needs of poor farmers.
“To make sure that the farmers grow their favourite marketable crops (eg cow bean) after cultivating monsoon paddy,” was one of his top goals.
Analyst Aung Naing Oo said the down-to-earth campaigns reflected the day-to-day worries of the average voter in a country that was the rice bowl of Asia before decades of economic mismanagement by the military took their toll.
“For the farmer, the poor, the ordinary people, their concern is their livelihood, how they put meals on the table. Other issues like freedom are secondary,” he told AFP.
“We are a new democracy. The voters are not that enlightened,” he said.
A total of 160 candidates from 17 parties, including six new to the political stage, are contesting Sunday’s polls.
Some are former political prisoners who paid a heavy price for standing up to the junta and are exploring the boundaries of their newfound freedoms.
Even now, they are not allowed to criticise the military during campaigning, and Suu Kyi’s speech was censored by Burma’s authorities to remove a dig at the former junta.
It is a similar picture in the fledgling parliament where legislative voting and debate are new experiences for the country’s novice lawmakers.
The Modern People’s Party, which has its roots in the Burma Communist Party, said in its broadcast that it had turned its back on socialism to embrace the market economy.
But in her speech, joint general secretary Yi Yi San said the party was also against expropriation of farmland and the digging of fishponds in good arable land.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is headed by President Thein Sein and dominates parliament after a controversial 2010 election win, said it had bigger fish to fry.
“The party will try its best for prevention against internal and external dangers that can harm the interests of the state and the people,” said secretary general Htay Oo.
With the release of political detainees a key issue for the lifting of sanctions, the New National Democracy Party said it had worked for amnesties and proposed drafting a new prisons act “to guarantee human dignity”.
But displaying a lighter side, chairman Thein Nyunt said the party had also urged the government to allow “antiphonal chants” – humorous songs used to criticise the authorities, which were banned under the junta – during April’s New Year water festival.
And contrasting with the more polished manifestos, the aims of some political newcomers were startlingly modest.
Myanmar National Congress Party chairman Kaung Myint Htut said his fledgling organisation was not famous or rich and its policies were similar to those of his rivals.
“We would like to urge you, if you do not like Myanmar National Congress Party, you should not vote for us,” he said.