In Myanmar, voters prepare for clash of symbols


As Myanmar prepares to vote in only its third election in 50 years, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party faces a challenge that seems at odds with her global celebrity and long fight for democracy: brand recognition.

"I'm worried that some people think that this represents our party," says Dr May Win Myint, a candidate in her National League for Democracy (NLD), pointing to the logo of the rival National Democratic Force (NDF), created by former NLD members.

Its dominant feature is the traditional bamboo hat worn by Myanmar's farmers and widely associated with Suu Kyi loyalists.

Win Myint, a medical doctor and formerly one of Myanmar's longest-serving female political prisoners, must also contend with confusion generated by another rival: the New National Democracy Party, whose logo has not one but three bamboo hats.

Myanmar's vote on Sunday, in which only 45 of more than 1,000 seats in the national legislature will be contested, is more than a test of its nascent democratic credentials. It also suggests that a vibrant political scene is emerging in a once-isolated country run by the military for half a century until a semi-civilian government took office last year and embarked on reforms.

The actual logo of Suu Kyi's party is a yellow fighting peacock and white star against a red background. During decades of military dictatorship, displaying or even owning an NLD flag could mean harassment or jail time.

But since Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in November 2010, the NLD flag has been displayed with increasing confidence. During the Nobel laureate's nationwide campaign, tens of thousands of people have lined the streets wearing T-shirts bearing the fighting peacock.

Other parties have similar logos and names.

The symbol of the Mon National Democracy Party is also, at first glance, a yellow fighting peacock on a red background, but it is in fact a mythical bird called a hintha.

Nor is the NLD the only party with a star in its logo. Eight other parties have one or more, while The Democracy Party (Myanmar) has stars and a peacock.

Nine of the 17 parties contesting the seats have the words "democracy" or "democratic" in their names, and eight include the words "national."

Inexperienced electorate

The confusion is unlikely to help an inexperienced electorate. This is only the third election Myanmar has held since 1962, when the military seized power.

The most recent, in 1990, was won by the NLD, but the junta annulled the results. Two decades later the NLD boycotted an election that was widely criticized as rigged, but nevertheless brought to power a quasi-civilian, reform-minded government.

The NLD is challenging for 44 of the 45 by-election seats on April 1. Suu Kyi is standing for the lower house from Kawhmu constituency, about 30 miles south of Yangon.

On March 25 she fell ill due to seasickness and exhaustion while campaigning by boat in southern Myeik. She remains "a little delicate," she said on Friday.

The absence of NLD's celebrated leader is "not so damaging," said nationwide campaign manager Nyan Win. "If it's a free and fair election, we'll win all 44 seats."

Even while convalescing, Suu Kyi is still campaigning, he said. "She is giving us many instructions from her house."

Suu Kyi's main rival is the Union Development and Solidarity Party (USDP), which was created by the military junta that jailed or detained her for a total of 15 years. In the NLD's absence the USDP won the 2010 elections by a landslide.

Most of the NLD's accusations of illegal campaign tactics have been leveled at the USDP, which arguably boasts the most unmistakable logo.

It features a mythical lion-like creature called a chinthe, statues of which guard the entrances to Yangon's revered Shwedagon Pagoda, as well as other Buddhist temples nationwide. The chinthe also appears on Myanmar's currency, the kyat.

The USDP began life as a mass organization called the Union Development and Solidarity Association, created in 1993 and once compared by Suu Kyi to the Hitler Youth.

"It changed its name but not the logo, so people are very familiar with it," says Aye Mya Kyaw, who edited a voters' guide for 7 Day News Journal, a leading Myanmar-language weekly newspaper.

The newspaper's guide includes instructions on how to correctly mark ballot papers, and the procedure inside the polling stations. Myanmar's voters are more savvy than their relative lack of experience suggests, said Aye Mya Kyaw.

Even the USDP's distinctive logo might not benefit a party whose leadership is stacked with former members of a much-despised military regime. "If you hate the USDP," Aye Mya Kyaw said, "then you'll know who not to vote for."

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