Over on New Mandala, Nicholas Farrelly makes some important points about Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign for a parliamentary seat in the April 1 Burmese by-elections. Most notably, he writes that “it is much more dangerous for President Thein Sein if Aung San Suu Kyi fails to win her seat.” Indeed, I think this point has been poorly understood and underestimated. All of the harassment, intimidation, and other methods to keep the National League for Democracy (NLD) from campaigning as effectively as they should will actually be counterproductive to the president if Suu Kyi loses or if the NLD loses most of the seats. After all, Thein Sein needs Suu Kyi as much as she needs him, and as Farrelly notes, if Suu Kyi loses or the NLD fails to gain many seats, it will be viewed as a sign of obvious vote-rigging, the election will lose its credibility, and the changes from the international community that Thein Sein hopes will be a product of the election —removal of sanctions, new investment and aid, the big aid conference this summer— could be stalled or stopped.
So, although Suu Kyi has on the campaign trail called out Thein Sein by name, accusing him of improper electioneering, and criticizing the government and other parties of harassment and preventing the NLD from effective campaigning, it is unlikely that Thein Sein really backs all these ‘tough guy’ tactics used against the NLD. To be sure, the government has many hard-liners, and on the campaign trail, particularly in outlying areas, old habits remain from previous rigged polls like the constitution vote several years ago. Many local officials probably simply assume that harassment and intimidation are the norm when dealing with the NLD and its supporters. But does this harassment come from the top? I don’t think so, and Farrelly makes a strong case why it does not.