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A crushed student movement and shrinking hope ahead of Myanmar's election

YANGON/LONDON (Reuters) - Myanmar teacher Hnin grew up idolizing Aung San Suu Kyi, the one-time democracy icon who now leads her country. But when voters go to the polls on Sunday for the second general election since the end of military rule, Hnin will not back her.

An undated photo shows Hnin, a Myanmar teacher, posing in front of National League for Democracy party flag in Hpakant Township, Kachin State, Myanmar. Hnin/Handout via REUTERS

While Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to win again on the strength of its leader’s enduring popularity, critics such as Hnin say she has failed to make good on promises to unite the country.

“I have no more trust in her,” said the 21-year-old of the Nobel peace prize laureate. “The path she is trying to take towards democracy is impossible.”

Far from the wave of optimism that greeted the NLD’s landslide win in 2015, Myanmar goes into this election facing a surging coronavirus outbreak, rising economic hardship and escalating civil and ethnic conflicts.

Hnin is one of dozens of activists from a student group behind anti-government protests and leaflet campaigns across the country in recent months.

The All Burma Federation of Students Union (ABFSU), which urges a boycott of the vote, are a fringe group at the sharp edge of deepening disillusionment in parts of the country.

Their campaign has been met with a sharp crackdown. Nine have been sentenced, two of them to five years in prison, for causing public mischief among other charges, while 10 others are in police custody and more than a dozen are in hiding.

Representatives of the NLD and government did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.

Suu Kyi’s defenders say the students are unrealistic to expect rapid change after half a century of military rule and are hampering efforts to secure gradual progress.

“Everyone is trying so hard to expel the dictatorship,” said Buddhist monk Thawbita. “They are making problems. It is definitely not acceptable.”


The ABFSU began a “no more war” campaign in March, with students putting up posters and handing out leaflets condemning the war in Rakhine state.

Rakhine is the region bordering Bangladesh from which more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims were expelled in 2017 after a military crackdown the United Nations has said was executed with “genocidal intent”. Myanmar denies accusations of genocide during what it says was a legitimate counterinsurgency campaign.

Now Rakhine is the site of another conflict between government troops and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group that recruits from the mostly Buddhist local majority in its quest for greater state autonomy.

The army has denied targeting civilians in the latest conflict, which has killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands, and declared the Arakan Army a terrorist organisation.

In cities and towns across the country, the students have distributed pamphlets and put up posters with slogans like “dictatorships must fail” and “oppose murderous fascism” and urging the government to lift curbs on the internet in Rakhine.

Hnin said she sympathized with the victims of the war because she grew up in the northern Kachin state, which has also been ravaged by insurgency.

The civilian government had done nothing to stop the conflict and was a “puppet” of the army, she said, blaming the junta-drafted 2008 constitution that reserves key powers for the military and gives it a veto over changes to the charter.

“As a teacher, I want a better future for the children,” Hnin said. “With this constitution, nothing will happen.”


Maya Tudor, a lecturer at the Blavnik School of Government at Oxford University who studies democratic transition, said the NLD had failed to make democratic changes within its power, maintaining tight curbs on the media and prosecuting critics.

“The promise of an NLD-led democratic deepening has evaporated amid backsliding,” she said. “The transition is in deep-freeze.”

Government ministers have said expectations on what the NLD could achieve in its first term were unrealistically high, but that the administration has revoked some oppressive junta-era legislation and plans further reform.

Interest in politics has fallen since 2015, however, with pessimism highest in ethnic areas where many people feel sidelined by the Buddhist Bamar majority government, according to a survey by local watchdog the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections.

Ethnic-based parties are expected to pull some votes away from the NLD.

But internal migration and a first-past-the-post electoral system means this may not translate into seats, analysts say, and elections have been cancelled in more than 50 townships due to insurgencies.

Richard Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said in 2015 many ethnic minorities saw Suu Kyi’s party as natural allies.

“But they have now come to see the NLD as an adversary, governing in the interests of the majority,” he said. “This could drive more armed conflict.”

(Corrects typo “goes” to “go” in para 1)

Reporting by Thu Thu Aung and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Alex Richardson