As voters filed into the sandy courtyard of a school on the outskirts of Myanmar's largest city to cast their ballots in today's parliamentary by-elections, many carrying parasols to shade them from the sun, a stocky young man stood to one side watching them, filling in a form.
Eight years ago, Chan Tha Kyaw was Myanmar’s youngest political prisoner, a 15 year old schoolboy locked up for joining a demonstration against the military government. Today he was an unofficial election observer for a small NGO, monitoring the progress towards democracy that has transformed his life.
As the government has changed, offering new political liberties, so has Chan Tha Kyaw. Now he is ready to believe in the reforms, and to engage with them. “We need a new approach,” he says.
Many voters in Mayangone, a residential suburb of Yangon, seem to share his faith in these by-elections, even though too few seats are at stake to threaten the military-backed government’s majority. In this they are following Aung San Suu Kyi, who is leading her National League for Democracy into the election after boycotting polls in 2010 widely seen as fraudulent. The NLD is claiming she has won her constituency, which would put her in public office for the first time.
“I had no problems voting,” says Hnin Wei Aung, a young woman dressed in her Sunday best as she emerged from a polling station. “I felt freer than I did in 2010, and I’m confident my vote will be counted properly.”
Suu Kyi's portrait everywhere
The atmosphere running up to election day has surprised veteran observers of the traditionally tightly controlled politics in Myanmar (also known as Burma). Newspapers have been more daring, Ms. Suu Kyi’s portrait – once strictly banned – is now visible everywhere in Yangon, on posters, tee-shirts, flags, and lapel badges, and tea shops have been abuzz with talk of the elections.
“It is clearer to people that they will not get reprisals if they vote NLD,” says one voter, who preferred nonetheless to remain anonymous. “Before, only brave people voted against the government. Now they don’t care.”
Some voters, however, remain skeptical, in the light of the rigged 2010 election and a 1990 vote for a constituent assembly in which the NLD won a landslide victory that the military government then ignored.
“I voted today with fairly high confidence, but I still don’t know if the government will lie about the results,” says Kyaw Kyaw, a government employee.
“If there is real democracy I have no doubt that Aung San Suu Kyi will win, but we’ll have to wait and see,” cautions Aye Aye Maw, a grandmother tending a small roadside stall selling snacks and soft drinks.
Results expected mid-week
Full official results are not expected until mid-week, but Suu Kyi said earlier this week that the campaign itself had served to “raise the political awareness of our people … to encourage them to free themselves from the fear of the past few decades … and to try to forge a united purpose.
“We have been energized by the eagerness and preparedness of our people to take part in the political process,” she added. “That in itself is a triumph for us, whatever the results of the election.”
There is still much to be done, however, warns Chan Tha Kyaw, the young election observer. “I’ve noticed that quite a few people are voting without knowing much about the candidates,” he says. “They have no idea what will happen if they vote for this or that candidate.”
In Myanmar’s countryside, home to 70 percent of the population, ignorance and confusion are even more widespread.
In the small village of Takaw 60 miles Southwest of Yangon, where hard-pressed farmers scrape a living by selling the rice and beans they harvest, Aung Min Naing watched his three bullocks chew on rice straw earlier this week and confessed that he did not know much about the elections and did not much care either.
The political changes that have electrified Yangon have made no difference to his life, beyond an increase in the amount he can borrow from the local branch of the state agricultural bank, and “I’m not interested in politics,” he said.
He had seen none of the three candidates running in his constituency, he added, and while NLD stickers on telephone polls, walls, and motorcycles showed the party had been campaigning hard, he did not know whether that meant it would win. “That," he said with a smile, “is a decision for the state.”
A bid to lift sanctions
President Thein Sein, the former general now spearheading reform in a bid to regain Myanmar’s international credibility and persuade the US and other western governments to lift economic sanctions, has pledged that Sunday’s vote will be free and fair.
The international observers witnessing the vote, however, were invited only at the last minute, and have warned that they will not have the time or resources to reach a proper judgment on the validity of the poll.
“The government’s intention was that these elections be free and fair, but for the past 50 years the underlying message has always been that official candidates should win at all costs,” says one foreign diplomat. “It may be difficult for lower level officials in charge of the polling stations to change that mentality.”
Early reports suggested the voting had gone reasonably smoothly, despite a number of irregularities at some polling stations. In more than one constituency, for example, voters complained that the check box beside the NLD candidate’s name on ballot papers had been smeared with a wax-like substance, making it impossible to mark.
* Editor's Note: Our correspondent Yangon cannot be identified for security reasons.