In a village four miles by boat from the nearest road, Soe Min, a former military doctor, was explaining his party's election policies to a gathered crowd. He told them: "You need to be clear who you should vote for."
Purists of election law may have frowned that Dr Soe was making his pitch from inside a clinic where he was also dispensing free check-ups and on which his party's banner was draped, but they might have understood his seeming digression once they realised the scale of his challenge; in the electoral contest taking place in a fortnight, the doctor's rival is Aung San Suu Kyi – democracy icon, former political prisoner and now the National League for Democracy's candidate for this rural constituency south of Rangoon.
"The most urgent need is that the water channel needs to be dug out, and they need a barrier to keep out the salty water," Dr Soe, who said he was born in Kawhmu and understood the villagers' requirements, told The Independent. "If there was a watergate, there could be 12 months of agriculture." Asked if he could defeat Ms Suu Kyi on April 1, he replied: "The people are my strength. We deal with things heart to heart. This is my power and my strength."
Perhaps. As Burma prepares for polls that will help determine whether or not the country continues on the path of reform, Mr Soe, 49, is the candidate of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the organisation that was created from swiftly-demobbed army officers in 2010 when the military junta decided to hand power to a purportedly civilian administration and hold an election. With Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest and the NLD boycotting that poll, for which there were no independent observers, the USDP won by a landslide.
But having decided to re-enter politics following the release of its leader, the NLD is now contesting 47 of 48 by-elections across the country, none of them more closely anticipated than this, where the 66-year-old Nobel laureate is involved in her first ever electoral battle. During two days in the constituency, only one person, a retired civil servant called U Hla Aung, who was buying betel nut from a stall, said he would vote for the USDP. "They have helped this town," he said.
Kawhmu is an hour's drive from Burma's former colonial capital. The road bumps through villages and small towns. In this hot season, the landscape is mainly dusty green and brown.
But the journey is frequently interrupted by flashes of colour – clusters of bougainvillaea, a pink comb in the hair of a woman cycling north and, most strikingly, the crimson banners of the NLD that bear the faces of Ms Suu Kyi and her father, national hero General Aung San, and the party's symbol, a peacock.
In the NLD's bamboo office, volunteers exuded confidence. "We will win 90 per cent of the vote," claimed U Aye Thein. He said much of their work involved checking voting lists. There were 129 polling stations for 85,000 registered voters, said Mr Aye, and they planned to send representatives to each on polling day. "At the moment, the electoral process is not fair. We are trying to check the list and we have invited legal experts from Rangoon. We are trying to educate people," he added.
Underscoring that concern, a statement issued by the party on Monday, added: "Voter lists in some constituencies were found to be incomplete and full of errors... These incidents can affect the emergence of a free and fair election."
It is barely 18 months since their leader stepped out from behind the gates of her Rangoon home after more than seven years of house arrest, and among these volunteers, there was a sense of genuine excitement. One woman, a 26-year-old graduate called Ma Ei Tharndar, said bringing jobs and education to the area was vital. She added: "Since I was 10, I have known about 'the Mother'. This is very important so I want to do as much as I can for my country. We are [making] history."
The volunteers also played the party's campaign song, singing along to a twangy country-styled number called "Mother Suu is coming back", that was written for her release from house arrest by exiled Burmese singer, Lashio Thein Aung, and which they said had been a big hit.
Ahead of the election, some have questioned whether, if elected, Ms Suu Kyi will have the time to dedicate sufficient energy to humble constituency needs. But Mr Aye, a member of the NLD since 1989, said: "She will focus on policies and the system. Other leaders can change things here... This will not be her main job."
In order to contest Kawhmu, Ms Suu was obliged to register as a local resident. The village her party chose was Wah Thin Kha, a remote, dusty community made up largely of ethnic Karen who farm rice, bamboo and betel leaf.
It would have been difficult to have missed Ms Suu Kyi's address. Large NLD banners had been erected alongside the two-storey home and the property been repainted in lime and salmon pink. Its real owner, a man called Kyaw Swar Min, swelled with pride as he recalled how his place had been selected as the constituency home of "the Lady".
"We found out in January. We were very happy, so proud. She came to visit in February," he said, as he explained how he hoped her connection with the village would help improve education and healthcare.
Upstairs, he pointed out where Ms Suu Kyi will sleep if she keeps to her promise to spend a night at the property if she wins. The party had already sent a metal bedframe for her from Rangoon and a new pink mattress, still wrapped in plas
tic, stood in one corner. On a downstairs wall hung a photograph of Ms Suu Kyi standing with her adopted family.
Ms Suu Kyi's only other rival in the contest, Tae Yi, of the Unity and Peace party, which reportedly does not even have an office in Kawhmu, recently filed a lawsuit saying she had no genuine connection with the village. The court ruled in Ms Suu Kyi's favour.
"She was very happy when she came here. She ate her lunch," the family enthused. "At the time, she said she did not want to talk too much because she would be coming back again and again and she wanted to save her words for the next occasion. She also said she would try and learn some Karen." Even if the NLD wins every seat it is contesting, power will not be wrested from the hands of the USDP. But strengthening the number of opposition MPs may have more than symbolic value.
At the same time, the government is hoping that the West will see the polls as proof that there has been real change and will lift a series of sanctions.
Yet, the election has also underscored the limits of reform so far; it remains unclear whether international observers will be invited or what sort of access the government will allow journalists. A bloody war with ethnic rebels in Kachin state continues.
During his comments, Soe Min, the doctor standing against Ms Suu Kyi, also highlighted the enduring mindset of the military establishment. "The army is now an efficient political party," he said. "They have taken off their uniforms because we need to keep them to organise the society."
Asked about the appropriateness of his mixing political campaigning with provision of free healthcare, he said he had been coming to the villages and holding clinics for five or six years. One man from Wah Thin Kha village, a boatman, disputed this, however, saying he had "never seen" the doctor before.
Dr Soe said people respected Ms Suu Kyi "because she is the daughter of General Aung San, but from a political point of view there is a different angle". He added: "A lot of people have been saved by my hands. I have given treatment free of charge. I hope they will choose me as their MP because I am close to here."
Timeline: Power struggle
The military takes power in a coup.
1988 Aung San Suu Kyi helps to set up the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest. The next year, the NLD wins 392 of 485 parliamentary seats. But the military refuses to relinquish power.
The NLD leader is freed – but her movements are restricted. In 2000, she is placed under house arrest again.
Suu Kyi is freed from detention. Twelve months on, she is detained again.
Military holds the first elections in 20 years, won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. A week later, Suu Kyi is released from house arrest.
Thein Sein is sworn in as president.
The NLD re-registers as a political party. In January, Suu Kyi registers to contest in by-elections in Kawhmu.Reuse content