SEAPA colleague Nai Nai returns to Burma to vote on 8 November after more than a decade living outside the country.
Twenty-five years since its last freely-contested election in 1990, Burma faced its moment in history on 8 November. Without much excitement, I went back to witness a milestone event. During my two-week trip, I wandered around observing and interacting with people from different walks of life. After Election Day, I realised that I would’ve regretted it had I not been part of this moment.
A few ahead of the elections, everyone’s focus was only about the upcoming exercise and its propspects.
In the outskirt of Yangon , Daw Aye Mar, a 52-year old widow and a mother of four, was chatting with her neighbours in the tea shop in the middle of the market. They were talking about the election as a campaign motorcade of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) passed by. She complained that commodity prices kept rising as the election drew nearer.
“It is very hard to meet daily ends for my family. My eldest son is the only bread winner, but he makes less than $200 per month as a company driver.”
Like Daw Aye Mar, millions of people in poverty across the country wished to see tangible change that can lift them away from their daily struggles.
On the eve of the election, Shwedagon Pagoda was packed with locals as well as tourists.
Ma Swe Swe Oo, 42, brought her children to the Shwedagon Pagoda. She runs a small food-stall in North Okkalapa Township. The food stall is the only source of income for her family, although she has a bachelor degree in Burmese Language. She hopes the winner of the election to create more job opportunities, free from nepotism.
“I don’t want my children suffer like me”, Swe said wearily. Based on the World Bank’s data released in 2013, Burma is ranks 151st in the world in terms of unemployment.
Like Swe Swe Oo, Zarchi, 23, wishes to have a better life for her one-year old baby boy. Zarchi is unable to continue to tertiary education after she got married.She manages a small grocery shop in Tharkayta Township.
She said, “I wish my son to be educated and live healthy.” Like everybody, she also believed the election would bring something positive for her country.
- Daw Kyi Mi insisted on going to the polling booth to personally cast her vote.
“Only on election day”
‘At barely 6 in the morning, more than a hundred people already formed a long queue in front of the polling station at a high school in Thingangyun Township. Police and plain-clothed security guards were guarding the entrance, as more and more enthusiastic faces of different ages trooped to the compound.
U Aye Yee, 89, arrived at the station with the help of his two daughters.
“I want to cast my vote in my own hands instead of giving it in advance. It is not safe,” said Aye, a former farmer and cattle-raiser, who is now under the close-care of his daughters.
When I asked who he would vote for, he said with a broad smile, “I am not going to say, but it is in my heart.”
That early, I was awed by the old man’s strong determination. Even though allowed by law, he refused to cast an advance vote for fear that it might be counted for the party he voted for.
According to election rules, the sick, the elderly and persons who had to work on election day were allowed to vote in advance. Like U Aye Yee, many other elders took the trouble of going to the polling stations and cast their votes on 8 November.
In another polling station in Thingangyun roughly 3 km away, Daw Kyi Mi, 75, told me in a trembling voice after she cast her ballot, “I had been worrying a lot that something might happen to the election. I could’t sleep the whole night”.
“I arrived at the station even before 5:30 am,” said Daw Kyi Mi, who was dressed in a bright pink blouse and with her hair tied neatly in a bun. Clearly thrilled, her eyes sparkled with a tear.
“This is very important for the whole country, not just for me”, she uttered trying to compose herself. She, too, insisted voting only on 8 November.
Emotion is contagious. When I left the station, my heart felt like bursting and my eyes brimmed with tears. I felt Daw Kyi Mi pass on her hope for the young through our short conversation.
Patience and concern
At the polling compound in Za-myauk Ward, a long queue of voters waited patiently under the burning sun. It was amazing to witness how calm the crowd was, waiting in the intense heat.
- San Yu proudly shows off his inked pinky finger after he voted.
There, my friend introduced me with someone from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).
San Yu, 43, NLD secretary for Za-myauk Ward, was at the station to observe the voting.
“The voting process is going smoothly and systematically so far”, he spoke while proudly displaying his ink-marked pinky finger. He told me that, like him, 700 voters accomplished their mission for the day.
“We still have more than a thousand voters in waiting”, he continued while glancing at the two long lines of people. Za-myauk Ward has more than 2,000 eligible voters. He felt impressed at the eagerness of his neighbours to make their voice heard.
At every voting station, people were overwhelmed with the concern of not having enough time to vote before the booths close at 16:00 pm. Still, everyone was in a cheerful mood. It didn’t matter whether they met strangers or neighbours, they greeted each other with cheerful smiles and checked on each other.
“How is your experience?” “Have you voted?” “Hurry! The line is going to be very long!” were the very common questions flying around at the voting center.. All of the sudden, barriers seemed to fall among neighbours.
In a squalid slum of Zawana Ward, U Win Myint, 58, got out of his car as the street has become too narrow to drive into. Inside the street, he reminded the people he met about voting.“Have you finished voting? When are you going? Hurry! Hurry!”, he told them.
U Win Myint, a taxi-driver, felt it was important for everyone to participate. “We have to value this opportunity. We can’t spare a single vote to be wasted”, he said.
Earlier, he occasionally helped the NLD campaign in his township. Now, he was on his own to make sure that everyone around him went to vote.
As U Win Myint arrived at the slum-ward polling station inside the primary school, he met with Khun Thar, 22, who just came out from the station in frustration. Khun Thar told U Win Myint that he was able to vote in only 3 ballots for the upper house, lower house and regional legislature, but not for the ethnic representation. Khun Thar’s parents were Karen and Chinese. But as his name in his national ID isn’t a Karen name, he wasn’t able to cast the fourth ballot.
“It is very important to cast the vote for ethic representation, too. Now, I lost my chance”, Khun Thar said, agitated. He stopped his formal education after the high-school as he didn’t believe the current education system would get him a prosperous job. Meanwhile, he survives as a construction worker.
- Voters linger outside the booths to chat about their experience.
Around 10 am,, at Mingala-taung-nyunt Township, where the Muslim population was bigger than in other townships in Yangon, the atmosphere there was relaxed and welcoming like in other areas.
Ko Mya Oo, 40, was a gentle looking man wearing a white taqiyah, a cap commonly worn by Muslim men. Standing at the end of the long queue, he was waiting for his turn to vote.
Ko Mya Oo was concerned about the rising tensions against Muslims in the country. He wanted to have more securrity, as the past one-and-a-half years were difficult for his community.
If the situation heats up further, Ko Mya Oo said he would stay.
“I am a citizen of this country. I was born and raised here. I do not want to go anywhere”, he said softly but firmly. He believed his vote would bring positive change for the country.
- The crowd outside the NLD headquarters cheer as initial results show the party winning in various constituencies.
On the evening of Nov 8, hundreds of supporters gathered in front of NLD headquarters. NLD provided two big LCD screens for the public to see live vote-counting. The crowd cheered whenever NLD got a vote, but was largely disciplined.
Again people from all walks of life proved again how much they wanted have a people’s victory. Their hope prevailed.
“We wholeheartedly believe in Mother Suu”, said Sa Zaw Min, 24, a farmer in Wah-Thein-Kha village of Kawhmu Township, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s constituency.
The village surrounded by bamboo forests is located more than 40 miles away from Yangon. Its population of more than 1,000 speak only Karen with very little Burmese. The village being the least developed spot in Kawhmu Township, is the reason why Daw Suu, as many people call her, chose to keep her names there as her home constituency.
Sa Zaw Min’s household of 9 persons felt proud that Daw Suu put her name in their family registration in the township.
“She only says the truth. That’s why we believe her”, said Ko Kyaw Win, 40, while driving his taxi. He was certain that Daw Suu has no other personal agenda than to take away the people’s suffering.
With the big win, the country is now under NLD’s stewardship.