The prominent leader of Myanmar’s 88 Generation Student democracy movement said Monday he will contest the country’s upcoming general election under Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, despite facing criminal charges for organizing an unapproved protest late last year.
Ko Ko Gyi told RFA’s Myanmar Service he decided to run for parliament in the Nov. 8 polls to represent the interests of the people, and suggested charges leveled against him under Article 19 of Myanmar’s Peaceful Assembly law were politically motivated.
“The main reason I decided to participate is not to become an MP or get a position, but to serve the people’s interests and stand up for the oppressed,” he said.
“We [in 88 Generation] will carry on with our work, even if I am not elected.”
Ko Ko Gyi refused to elaborate on which constituencies he and other members of the 88 Generation group, named for their role in 1988 protests against the military regime, planned to contest, saying his group would make an announcement “after consultations with the NLD about their procedures.”
Responding to reports that authorities in Yangon’s South Okkalar township had recently summoned him to appear in court this week—only four months ahead of the vote—the 88 Generation leader said the move could hurt the government’s pledge to hold free and fair elections.
“The authorities should consider seriously it, as this could affect the country’s image if observers see the charges were timed so that I end up in jail by the election,” he said.
He added that “only those serving a sentence in jail cannot take part in elections, but those who haven’t been sentenced or have been released from prison can do so.”
The Irrawaddy online journal reported that Ko Ko Gyi had been summoned to appear at the South Okkalar court on either July 22 or 23 to answer questions related to a protest he held in December last year, and that the 88 Generation leader had been charged under Article 19 at the order of district and divisional authorities.
Ko Ko Gyi and four other activists held a protest in December calling for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to return to the public a park in South Okkalar which it had seized about a decade ago, and which is now the site of a multi-million dollar real estate development project.
Police had granted the activists permission to protest inside of a stadium in nearby Tamwe township, but they instead staged a small march in South Okkalar’s Ward 9, violating Article 19, which stipulates up to three months of jail time for those who demonstrate outside of areas designated by authorities.
The South Okkalar court first summoned Ko Ko Gyi and the other four activists on June 15, but the judge failed to appear on time and the defendants left the courthouse after 30 minutes.
Burma’s Election Law bars convicted criminals from running for parliament.
Ko Ko Gyi is among nearly two dozen members of the 88 Generation who have flocked to the NLD as the Aug. 8 deadline approaches for parties to finalize their lists of candidates. According to local media, other 88 Generation members include Mya Aye, Pyone Cho, Nyan Lin, Zaw Min, Aung Thu and Pandeik Tun, as well as leading female members Thin Thin Aye, Mar Mar Oo, Thet Thet Aung and two others.
Leading academics have also joined the opposition party, including National Network for Education Reform (NNER) leader Thein Lwin, rights activist Zin Mar Aung, blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt, Rangoon University head Aung Thu, and independent Yangon parliament lawmaker Nyo Nyo Thin.
Nang Khin Htwe Myint, a lawmaker with the NLD’s Central Executive Committee, told RFA that his party was in the midst of preparations for the campaigning period which begins 60 days prior to election day.
As part of the campaign period, he said, Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD deputy leader Tin Oo will take part in a tour of the majority of constituencies the party plans to contest in November—much like Aung San Suu Kyi did ahead of the country’s 2012 by-elections.
“They will travel to several constituencies to recognize the hard work of local NLD members … [as well as to places] that are experiencing some difficulties,” Nang Khin Htwe Myint said, though he acknowledged that the two leaders would not be able to travel to every area with a seat it plans to contest.
The election outcome will determine who holds the seats in Myanmar’s bicameral parliament for the next five years based on 330 constituencies for the lower house and 168 constituencies for the upper house. The two sides of parliament would nominate and vote on a president after the seats are filled.
Also in play are 644 constituencies for state and regional parliaments, as well as 29 for ethnic ministers.
Smaller ethnic parties are also gearing up for the race and submitting their candidate lists.
On Monday, Sipha Larlu of the Lisu National Development Party (LNDP) told RFA that his party will field 70 candidates for the election in Myanmar’s Kachin, Shan and Kayah states.
“Our party will contest in 30 places—especially those in Kachin state,” he said.
Kachin state—home to many of Myanmar’s estimated 700,000 members of the Lisu ethnic minority—has 18 townships up for grab among some 17 political parties, including the USDP and NLD, and the Kachin, Shan and Lisu ethnic parties.
Meanwhile, United Wa State Army (USWA) spokesman Aung Myint told RFA that some 600,000 people living in northern Shan state under his group’s control were unlikely to take part in the polls because immigration officials were unwilling to enter the area to provide them with election identification.
According to the Union Election Commission (UEC), he said, the election will not be held in areas where ethnic armies are clashing with government troops, including northern Shan state and parts of Kachin state.
“The election will not be held in our region, though it might be held in some areas of the Wa region that are under government control,” he said.
“We have about 600,000 people in our region and only about 2,000 have IDs. Some of them don’t have family household lists [registered for the election], even though they have IDs.”
Also on Monday, Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing said he believes the government will ensure November’s election is held according to international standards and pledged to respect the results of the ballot, even if the opposition wins.
“I believe the election will be free and fair … We are committed to helping make that happen, any way we can,” he told the BBC in an interview.
“When the election commission announces the result, we have to respect it because it will have been democratically done. So we are also going to vote and we are also going to respect the results when they are announced.”
The NLD is widely expected to sweep the polls, which are seen as a key test for Myanmar as it struggles with democratic reforms introduced by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government since it came to power following a 2010 ballot that the opposition boycotted and which was widely seen as neither free nor fair.
This year’s elections also come 25 years after Myanmar’s then-ruling military junta refused to recognize a sweeping victory by the NLD in the country’s 1990 general election.
Min Aung Hlaing also told the BBC that he would consider accepting the role of the nation’s president if asked to do so.
Reported by Moe Kalayar Oo, Kyaw Thu, Tin Aung Khine and Kyaw Myo Min. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.