Myanmar prepares to vote amid hopes, doubts, and many dreams

Myanmar is holding its first relatively free election in 25 years on Sunday in a crucial test for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party.

Mark Baker/AP
Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses the media at a press conference at her home in Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday. On Sunday, Myanmar will hold what is being viewed as the country's best chance for a free and credible election in a quarter of a century.

A new dawn may rise in Myanmar this Sunday as citizens head to polls in the nation's first real elections in a quarter century.

As morning breaks over Yangon, the former capital city that sprawls on a southern mouth to the sea, hope clashes with doubts that linger in old military mindsets and in the broken dreams of people caught in unresolved insurgencies among ethnic minorities around the country's periphery.

Burned-out villages and moldering urban enclaves in Myanmar tell a different story from the clean transition out of authoritarian rule that has been the optimistic narrative for the nation since 2011. That year a brutal military junta dissolved itself and yielded to a parliamentary system dominated by its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

But on Nov. 8, for the first time since 1990, a longstanding dream of civilian rule has a chance of becoming real. Some 75 percent of seats in national and regional parliaments are up for grabs. The 2008 Constitution reserves the remaining 25 percent of seats for the military. 

With more than 90 parties registered to compete in the elections, the real fight pits the old guard in the USDP against the biggest pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. That storied alliance emerged out of a mass uprising in 1988 against the reclusive dictatorship of Ne Win, Myanmar's first post-colonial military tyrant.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, forbidden from taking power in 1990 after winning a landslide victory, offers now a motto of change, and a mandate to better people's lives. That may sound overly simple. But in a country that still ranks among the most impoverished in Southeast Asia, shorn of its earlier commercial and social promise by decades of military rule starting in 1962, true change is measured in an extra spoonful of fish in people’s morning noodle soup, or in the length of a bus commute. Hope hinges on hairline markers of improvement in daily livelihoods that still barely hover above subsistence levels.

Politics and poverty 

Now, as under the military junta, politics and poverty in Myanmar have been in close alignment: The sheer breadth of want is striking in a nation situated in the middle of an Asian continent that includes some of the fastest growing economies in the world. For all the optimism of the wider world being expressed at Myanmar’s opening up over the past three years, the pace of change on the street has been creeping.

Today the streets of Yangon are a festival of noise and smell, crowded with hawkers selling betel nut and fried dough, and Buddhist monks in saffron togas weaving single-file through columns of diesel-belching cars jammed bumper to bumper. All along the old boulevards, cranes are jutting up for condominiums that advertise sky-top pools and conference centers.

But take a detour into a side-alley or meander through the warrens of the old residential districts, and the poverty has yet to budge. The seamstresses and candlewick makers in the market on 114th street, a labyrinth of wooden huts, will soon take up residence in a nearby ditch. They are being pushed out to make room for a shopping mall that is financed by a company whose name remains unpublished. The mall's shiny contents will be unaffordable to the district's population of trishaw drivers and petty tradesmen.

For foreigners with money rents now rival New York and London. But prices are also higher for locals, members of the middle class who hang their laundry off their balconies in the moldering colonial-era apartments that have barely resisted six decades of tropical rot and government neglect. Day laborers complain about the cost of their commute and that life is harder.

But the relative poverty of Yangon is nothing compared to the destitution of villagers trapped among the bitter insurgencies that persist along the border. On Oct. 15, the government signed a hasty cease-fire with eight rebel armies. But for nearly 16 others, desperate wars continue. In Shan state, on the northeast border with Thailand, a handful of hard-bitten rebel insurgencies exchange near-daily fire with the Burmese Army. Another 50-year struggle unfurls with the main rebel army of the Christian-majority Kachin people living among jade mines and teak forests near China.

To the west, in Rakhine state, nearly a million ethnic Rohingya Muslim peoples live in segregated camps, hated and hungry and denied the right to vote by a government that has refused to recognize their Burmese citizenship.

A scarlet flag and a golden peacock

No wonder – amid ongoing distress – that people pour out by the hundreds to register their support for the NLD. They bear the party’s scarlet red flag, with a star and a gold fighting peacock. Born under British rule as the emblem of the anti-colonial independence movement and passed on to the student revolutionary underground, the peacock belongs now to that dream of democracy as embodied by the NLD’s 1,137 candidates. 

Many bearing that emblem have just sought to catch a glimpse of “Maa Suu,” the term of veneration and affection shouted at rallies for the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. “The Lady,” as she is called both at home and abroad, spent 15 years between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest. For the past two months, she has ricocheted across the country in an SUV, shaking hands and speaking in her honeyed, I’m-your-pal cadences, pounding hard the message that her party, the NLD, offers the kinds of changes that the country sorely demands.

At her final campaign speech on Nov. 1, in a distant field in the suburbs of Rangoon, she fired up her audience with jokes, a question-and-answer session, and words about how real democracy is a tension between responsibility and rights. Some numbered the crowd at 40,000. 

To this visitor’s eyes, that estimate seemed only a touch exaggerated. People had colored red the streets of the city all the way to the stage, with flags flying from rooftops, and the branches of tamarind trees.  

Officials had denied Aung San Suu Kyi the right to speak in People’s Park beside Shwedagon Pagoda. That is a more central and familiar location, but carries a legacy of revolution. It served as a rallying point for the main street protests of the past, and likewise as the venue for Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaugural address before tens of thousands during the legendary mass uprising of August 1988.

The NLD boycotted the last elections in 2010. The reason: Electoral laws excluded candidates with a criminal conviction and would have forced the party to toss out some 430 members serving time as political prisoners, including venerable party chairman, Tin Oo and Aung San Suu Kyi, then still under house arrest. 

In their absence, and with a massive amount of ballot stuffing, the big winner of the 2010 election was the military proxy, USDP. The party had recently been converted from the social wing of the junta. Since 1993 military had been using the party to bury tentacles of control throughout the population. Gen. Than Shwe, the old junta strongman, handpicked for the USDP leadership, and for the presidency, his No. 4 figure in the military pantheon, Brig. Gen. Thein Sein.

Military not yet back in its barracks 

To President Thein Sein and his quasi-civilian government falls the credit, since 2011, for political reforms and for the first sparks of economic development. Prominent political prisoners were released. Censorship, among the worst in the world, was loosened. Western countries, including the US, began easing sanctions, imposed in waves since the junta refused to accept the electoral victory of 1990. Western investment has begun to flow in for the first time in decades. 

But an ugly spirit of aggression against democratic change could capsize the outcome of the vote or any handover. The military has yet to return to its barracks, and the 2008 constitution gives it nearly unassailable clout. On Aug. 12, the reformist speaker of the lower house was ousted in a military coup.  On Oct. 29, Naing Ngan Lin, a candidate for the NLD in a suburb of Rangoon suffered deep gashes to his head and hands after diving in to protect supporters from a machete-wielding thug at his campaign rally.

Meanwhile, NLD candidates are going door-to-door for voter education, developing personal interactions with would-be constituents.

When I first met Khin Moht Moht Aung in 2009 I knew her only by her revolutionary nom de guerre – Paw Paw. Recently I watched her, dressed in the uniform of the NLD, knocking on doorways in Rangoon’s Chinatown to teach the art of casting a ballot. 

One of her hosts drew her into a conversation about Ma Ba Tha, the ultra-nationalist Buddhist political movement known for anti-Muslim racism. She said she needed their vote. Later she said she was repulsed by the racism but cognizant that politics is a different business than was the shadowy poetry of revolution she grew up with. 

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