Apprehensive. If there was one word to describe the mood of the SEAPA staff and fellows on arriving in Yangon on 30 October for the 2015 Fellowship this was it. Although the situation had thus far been peaceful, everyone was worried that the 8 November vote and the succeeding days would be marked with violence, including against the media.
The 2015 Fellowship aimed to examine how Myanmar media covers the elections – the first in 25 years with a genuine politcal contest, and the first in more than 50 years with a relatively free media environment.
Of course, observing media coverage of the election will also mean covering the vote and everything else happening during the historic moment. This meant that they had to meet not only media workers but also politicians, civil society groups, and even people on the streets.
However, the Union Election Commission set down very strict rules for media to be able cover the election, including requiring specific permits for foreign journalists and limiting each journalist to cover only a specific polling district.
Anticipating the normal bureaucratic hassle journalists normally experience in getting visas to report from the country, SEAPA decided against asking fellows to get media visas for the fellowship. The fuss to get official recognition was made impractical by the severely restricted permission to be obtained.
Besides, the secretariat thought that the theme – covering the media – would be a technicality to get around the ridiculous rules. We decided to brief our local network about this matter to take the necessary precautions.
As with previous years, the 2015 fellowship began with a three-day orientation in Yangon to prepare fellows for the field work.
Speakers who briefed the 2015 fellows on politics, mainstream and ethnic media, gender, safety and elections included renowned journalist U Zin Linn, former Myanmar Journalist Network secretary Myint Kyaw, academic Khin Ma Ma Myo, independent candidate Nyo Nyo Thin; as well as editors Lut Latt Soe (People’s Age), Khin Myat Kyaw (Narinjara news), May Thingyan Hein (Myitmakha journal), Nan Paw Gay (Karen Information Center), and Thin Lei Win (Myanmar Now).
Fellowship alumni from Burma also pitched in as resource persons for the orientation briefings, including, Kyaw Zwa Moe (2004), Ye Naing Moe (2005), Nyan Lynn (2010), Kyaw Ye Lynn (2014) Nan Lwin (2014).
The 2015 fellows – Bernard Cheah from Malaysia, Filipinos and returning fellows Chino Gaston and Ryan Rosauro, and Shinta Maharani from Indonesia – shared their story proposals and were able to fine-tune their plans by interacting with the resource speakers.
The discussions during the orientation would be disrupted occasionally when electioneering vehicles of different political parties pass by blaring out their campaign songs.
Particularly disrupting were ruling party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and main opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) trucks which carried the loudest speakers with people dancing atop the truck beds.
Campaign caravans would stop in front of the orientation venue, sometimes well into the night, to engage prospective voters.
So during the orientation, the fellows, editors and SEAPA staff would often hum or sing the chorus of the NLD catchy campaign song: “NLD, naing ya mei; Pyi thu parti; naing ya mei, NLD…” (NLD, we must win; People’s party, we must win, NLD…).
Fellows were also able to witness NLD’s massive final campaign rally, and join the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s 5 November press conference.
It turned out too, that once in Yangon, it was relatively easy to get official media accreditation to cover the election.
The anticipated strict rules for election coverage were relaxed as around 1,000 foreign journalists flew into Myanmar to cover the election.
Local and foreign journalists, including SEAPA Fellows and their facilitators were able to move freely around the polling places. At times, Fellows noted, poll officers would go out of their way to facilitate journalists covering the polls.
The anticipated violence during polling and counting did not materialise. Journalists, too, were able to do their jobs without incident, which resulted in a favourable environment for the conduct of the fellowship fieldwork.
In addition to the much-criticised UEC rules for media coverage, the only incidents related to freedom of expression during the election period were the four arrests in October related to Facebook posts of private citizens who were NLD supporters.
As for the polling itself, controversy arose around the disenfranchisement of voters, particularly the Rohingya and those in ethnic areas with ongoing conflict, and the advanced voting which was off-limits to the media, and which in some areas seemed to favour the ruling party.
However, these were minor incidents if compared with the election outcome: the overwhelming victory for NLD, which won nearly 80% of contested seats. This victory enables NLD to form the next government without having to make deals with other parties.With the final tally yet to be announced, the election was a victory for the people, who had waited 25 years to reassert their choice of which party they want to govern the country.
Peoples of Myanmar voted with discipline and determination to see to it that their will is reflected in the vote count, despite the odds.
These experiences provided more depth and colour to the stories of the 2015 Fellowship, enabling them to directly feel the people’s mood by witnessing thousands of people in the rallies, the long vote queues, and the vigilance over the ballot counting.
It remains to be seen whether the transition will be smooth, and if the NLD will be able to deliver the democracy they have fought for together with the people.
For now, the general mood of optimism, hope and determination during the election helped lift initial apprehensions about the conduct of the Fellowship fieldwork.