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Myanmar vote: A democracy activist's story

Naing Ngan Lin, a former political prisoner, was stabbed last week while campaigning ahead of Sunday's historic election. He's not holding a grudge. He just wants a freer nation.  

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A supporter of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party carries a large photo of her father, independence hero General Aung San to a campaign rally to conclude their election campaign in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015.

Mark Baker/AP

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Among the candidates standing in Myanmar's Nov. 8 elections are former rebels and activists who spent years in prison for defying military rule.

They include Naing Ngan Lin, one of hundreds of foot soldiers in the nation's democracy movement. He has grown from a wise-cracking activist, who risked daily arrest to cultivate a secret group of dissidents, into a mature politician, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. In 2012 he was elected to parliament, the chamber's second youngest member. Now he's standing for reelection. 

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But he's also become a symbol of the fragility of Myanmar's transition from military rule. Last week, during a rally just outside Yangon, the former capital, Naing Ngan Lin was seriously wounded by a machete-wielding thug. The attacker was apparently among scores of convicted criminals released from prisons recently in a broad amnesty, a move that some see as a government ploy to sow civil unrest that could invite a military crackdown, as happened in 1988. 

A major win for the civilian forces of the NLD would be a threat to members of the old military elite.

Rising anger and disillusion has reared other ugly heads. Ma Ba Tha, an ultra-nationalist, Buddhist-monk-led network built on hatred against Muslims, has a national following. For a few dollars, a well-oiled military can recruit young men with little to do in slums and villages around the country. Thugs-for-hire are the mainstay of the so-called Swann Arr Shin, a paramilitary force known for beating or rounding up civilians on the orders of shadowy generals. 

Naing Ngan Lin was a child of Yangon's slums. He hawked pinecones as a teenager when his parents, old-time activists with the NLD, were arrested; he smuggled himself over the border to Thailand to work in sweatshops. Today, he has few illusions about what decades of military rule has done to his country and to ordinary people who were complicit in its moral and economic corruption. 

Like most of the foot soldiers in Aung San Suu Kyi's movement, Naing Ngan Lin no longer calls for justice for past repression and focuses instead on political and policy reforms. The new battleground, he says, is debate and negotiation in the parliament where he sits. 

Nor is he the kind to surrender easily. Two days after his second surgery on hands that he may never use again, Naing Ngan Lin was back campaigning. Hailed by a massive crowd, he lifted his bandaged arms to the sky. To him, as to his colleagues, the work of building democracy was never going to be an overnight revolution.

Ms. Schrank profiled Naing Ngan Lin and another dissident in her 2015  book, "The Rebel of Rangoon."