By Andrew R.C. Marshall
YANGON (Reuters) - Soe Min calls himself "the luckiest man in Myanmar." But he'll need more than luck to win a seat in crucial April 1 by-elections. He'll need a miracle.
That's because the retired army doctor is running against Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose nationwide political campaign has been cheered by huge crowds in cities and villages across Myanmar.
"She went abroad to be educated. I was educated here. Now we meet again," says Dr Soe Min, a jovial 49-year-old candidate for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the ruling party created by the former military junta.
How the son of a rice farmer ended up in a popularity contest against a living saint is the latest twist in a dramatic life Soe Min recounted in hesitant English in an interview.
His story offers a bloody glimpse of Myanmar's past battles for democracy and its ongoing civil war. And, in a country now governed by a nominally civilian government packed with former generals, it underscores the reverence ex-soldiers feel towards an institution many of their compatriots revile.
He was born in Twantay township, a district neighboring Kawhmu, the constituency he is contesting with Suu Kyi. His father had a dream that Soe Min would fulfill.
"He wanted to be a doctor very much, so he saved all his money for me," he recalls. "I studied hard." Among his favorite books were the writings of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th American president who railed against slavery.
Soe Min won a place at Yangon's Institute of Medicine 1. Myanmar's campuses seethed with anti-government feeling, but he avoided politics. In 1988, two years after he graduated, the military crushed a nationwide pro-democracy uprising, killing and wounding thousands, and Soe Min treated the injured at a makeshift clinic. "I even treated gunshot wounds," he says.
In 1989, he got the first glimpse of the woman he will face at the polls. Suu Kyi was born in 1945 and lived most of her early life outside Myanmar. Her mother, Khin Kyi, served as Myanmar's ambassador in India and Nepal.
She studied at Oxford University and later raised two children in England with the late scholar Michael Aris. But she returned to Myanmar to nurse her ailing mother and was swept up in the 1988 protests. Khin Kyi died late that year and Suu Kyi led a funeral procession through Yangon in early January 1989.
"That's when I saw her for the first time," recalls Soe Min.
Thereafter, their lives took different paths. Suu Kyi spent much of the next two decades under house arrest, a prisoner of the same military that, in 1989, Soe Min freely joined.
"I didn't want to earn money," he says. "I entered the army and went straight to the frontier areas. I saved the lives of many soldiers."
It was a baptism of fire. The Myanmar army had launched major offensives against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), an ethnic minority rebel group which had sheltered protesters who fled the 1988 crackdown.
He recalls how bullets whizzed around his head, and how a landmine once killed a nearby soldier and nicked him with shrapnel. "I lived and ate with the soldiers," he says.
Forged in the heat of battle was a life-long loyalty towards the military. "So many lives were sacrificed for our security," he says. "That experience changed me. It changed me very much."
The campaign against the KNLA was merciless, with the military accused of raping and torturing civilians -- the same atrocities it is committing in its ongoing battle against Kachin rebels today, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
"I hate war very much, especially civil war," says Soe Min, who nevertheless defends the military's anti-insurgency campaigns. "Our country is composed of many ethnic (minorities). They need a very strong control. Or else the civil war will spread and everyone will be in danger."
The military, he insists, "gave us democracy".
In 2008, he retired from the army to work as a government health officer before joining the USDP. The party chose him to run in by-elections that the United States and Europe regard as a key test before sanctions against Myanmar can be lifted.
SUU KYI'S "WEAK POINT"
Suu Kyi is a tough adversary, admits Soe Min, but her "weak point" is the time she spent abroad. "She doesn't know the true nature of our country's problems," he says. "She knows more theoretically. I know more practically."
When it is pointed out that Suu Kyi's ability to get to know her country was hampered by years of house arrest, Soe Min echoes the rationale of the former junta: her detention prevented political unrest.
He believes his military past is an advantage but is also banking on his image as a doctor, appearing on campaign leaflet in a white coat with a stethoscope. He runs two free clinics, he says, with nursing staff and drugs paid for by his party.
In a chronically poor and backward country, Soe Min's policies are no-brainers. He wants to modernize agriculture, improve healthcare, and help students from poor families pursue further studies, just as he once did.
The near-certainty of defeat doesn't worry him. "I am the luckiest man in Myanmar," he says. "I will get a lot of experience from this election." He is thinking of contesting a Yangon seat in the more important general election in 2015.
Until then, he can cultivate the image of a simple country doctor, while drawing on powerful allies from his military days, though even they are unlikely to help his chances.
"Frankly, nobody can match Daw Suu now," says Aung Min, a shopkeeper in Kawhmu town. "Not even somebody from the celestial abode can beat her."
(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun in Yangon; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)