In the 2010 election, U Kaung Myint Htut made headlines as a young independent running against then-Yangon mayor U Aung Thein Linn in South Okkalapa.

It’s not hard to see why many were attracted to the contest. U Kaung Myint Htut was detained by police in 1988 when he was just 13, and went on to spend years as a political prisoner before deciding to register as a candidate, arguing that the public needed options other than the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. U Aung Thein Linn, meanwhile, came from the military establishment and since 2003 he had headed the despised Yangon City Development Committee, a body notorious for corruption and failing to deliver services to the city’s residents.

It was billed as a David-and-Goliath battle but the result didn’t follow the biblical script. U Kaung Myint Htut finished a respectable third in a field of five candidates with 6585 votes, well behind U Aung Thein Linn on 43,334.

Although he has remained active in politics in the intervening years through the Myanmar National Congress, a party he founded in mid-2011, he largely disappeared from public view.

Until September 21. His party policy speech, broadcast that night on MRTV, has brought his name, face and controversial politics to a new audience. In part, this is due to luck: he was selected to deliver his speech in the same slot as the National League for Democracy, which ensured more people than normal were watching.

Among other things, he recognised retired Senior General Than Shwe – the man who oversaw the government that imprisoned him – as the founder of Myanmar’s democracy, and advocated conscription and an armed forces of at least 1 million soldiers.

The contrast with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech in both content and delivery – his exuberance against her steely determination – couldn’t have been starker.

Was it a stunt? If not, why was a former political prisoner and opposition politician praising the former military regime?

But U Kaung Myint Htut insists he was sincere and that these ideas on civilian-military relations were percolating as far back as 2010. In one interview in June of that year he spelled out a vision for a unity government bringing together various parties, leaders “who are loved and respected by the people”, and institutions that would ensure good governance after the election. He told me at the time, “The Tatmadaw is like the strongest brother in the family. We will include them – we need them involved.”

Before speaking to the nation last week, he says he spent a month discussing what to say with his political colleagues in the MNC. It was a question of “begging for votes” or spelling out “the truth”.

His speech has certainly got people talking. During an interview with The Myanmar Times, he loads the MRTV Facebook page on his iPad and finds his video, which has been viewed 56,101 times. He scrolls down to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech: 47,462 views.

But many have been critical of his conciliatory message to the military – despite having been viewed fewer times, the NLD video has five times more “likes”.

Often they have misunderstood his message, he says.

“They think I told them to thank the senior general for change,” he says. “What I said is that, whether you like it or not, because of the 2008 constitution … Than Shwe managed to make a way out so the country had a chance to ride on a democratic wave.

“You were a dictator and you made so many mistakes. You are responsible for that. But you also did this [the 2008 constitution].

“The story has not ended yet. If the 2008 constitution and President U Thein Sein can lead to true democracy then we would be grateful.”

On conscription, another controversial topic he broached, U Kaung Myint Htut says that the Tatmadaw would be more scared of the prospect than those forced to serve in its ranks. The military think they are a “different class”, he says. Compulsory military service would be a mechanism for bringing about “sincere national reconciliation” between the Tatmadaw and the people it has oppressed for decades.

Some commentators have labelled him a “puppet” of the former senior general, whose continuing role in politics is hotly debated. “People even asked me how much did he pay you. I was expecting that reaction, but hoping that some, maybe a few, would understand and accept what I said.”

He insists he is unconcerned at the fallout.

“Politics is not my career … It is my belief. So I have no concern that there will be some effect or impact that would destroy my political career.”

Will his newfound popularity, or infamy, have any effect on election day? The prospects of a victory in Hlaing Tharyar appear remote. The township is the largest in Yangon in terms of population, with almost 690,000 residents, although many eligible voters are not on the electoral roll. The MNC’s grassroots campaigns on behalf of workers and farmers in the area will have only a limited impact. The party has few resources, a fact that nearly resulted in U Kaung Myint Htut missing out on the chance to give his speech. When his car broke down in Nay Pyi Taw, he was forced to take a bus to Pyinmana, where he borrowed a motorbike from an old friend to ride out to the MRTV studios in Tatkon.

Regardless of the result, U Kaung Myint Htut said the strategies of the major parties – the NLD and USDP – suggested the election could bring about heightened political conflict.

“Both are just trying to get power. The NLD never allied with other political groups – it believes it can be the only winner, and the USDP think the same,” he said. “The NLD told people it will be the only winner, but it can’t form a government after the election. People have been expecting too much.”

He argues that the winner-takes-all nature of the contest is dangerous and a more conciliatory approach is needed. It is from this belief that U Kaung Myint Htut’s proposals on the future of the Tatmadaw are born.

A week after his address and the backlash, he does not hesitate when asked whether he would take his more controversial statements back.

“I gave my country the best speech I have ever made,” he says. “It felt very good to share my sincere beliefs.”