World watches as Myanmar holds first free polls

YANGON – Sule Pagoda shimmers golden amid the retreating darkness of Central Yangon just as the first voters arrive at the polling station. They come in small groups, mostly older men and women, dressed in their best clothes and with big smiles on their faces.

A serious looking member of the Election Police stands guard behind a cordon made from some flimsy cloth.

He takes a long look at my election press card but eventually waves me through.

I puzzle over the firetrucks parked outside the colonial era building before realizing that voting was taking place inside a fire station.

People are already inside the polling place chatting excitedly. Journalists and members of civil society tell us much is riding on what is widely perceived to be the first free elections since the military took over government in 1962.

One of the first to vote is a man of about fifty with a head of white hair and an easy, toothy smile. He takes his ballot, a rectangular piece of yellow paper barely a foot long and settles on a nearby table.

Foreign and local journalists swarm around him taking video and pictures as he carefully uses a stamp to mark out his vote. There are no names on the ballot, just symbols of all the political parties participating in the elections.

Votes cast for the party are counted for that party’s local candidates for the upper and lower houses.

Those coming from the regions also have to vote for their members of the regional parliament and ethnic peoples representative.

The man rises from the table slowly, cradling the yellow paper in his hands. He walks towards a row of tables where clear plastic containers serve as ballot boxes. The ballot drops in and settles haphazardly among the other ballots.

Everywhere else in the country, the same scene is playing out as the Burmese turn out to vote.

“I feel happy that I will be voting today,” says 59-year-old Winh Tein, waiting to cast his vote in Bahan Township.

Majority of the estimated 34.8 million registered voters will participate in the elections widely perceived to be the country’s first free elections in over four decades.

For the first time, over a thousand journalists have descended on the country to observe and document the national elections.

Election watchdogs from all over the world have also been invited to observe the vote.

Semi dictatorship

Despite the self-declared democratization process instituted by the military and ruling government, journalists and civil society leaders say the country is still not free.

Nyo Nyo Thin, one of the few women candidates running for Parliament, says the international community has been too optimistic about the changes in Myanmar.

“To some extent we have a slight change but we are still in a semi dictatorship… People in government lack the willingness for real change… People can still be jailed if the government does not like what you are saying or writing about,” he said.

A major part of the excitement and hope over the elections is that Myanmar’s iconic Aung San Suu Kyi is running for a seat in Parliament along with other candidates from her National League for Democracy or NLD party.

In 2010, despite the military junta relinquishing its hold on government, Suu Kyi and the NLD did not participate citing among others, the need for changes to the election laws as well as the participation of outside election observers.

Suu Kyi was also ineligible for office then while serving a sentence for a trespassing incident in 2009, when a foreigner swam across a nearby lake and sought refuge in her house.

It was illegal in Burma to have an overnight guest without the knowledge of the authorities.

Tens of thousands of NLD supporters turned out a few days earlier for Suu Kyi’s campaign rally at the Myo o Pagoda on the outskirts of Yangon.

In a press conference in her residence last Friday, Suu Kyi expressed confidence that the NLD wpuld win majority of the seats in parliament, enough to form a new government and effictively run the state. She has promised changes in government if her party wins. In a country with a poor reputation for human rights, Suu Kyi’s promise of upholding human rights has become a popular battle cry.

“I promise everyone equal protection if I should lead the government.”

Myanmar’s constitution currently disqualifies Suu Kyi from being elected as President by the Parliament because she married a foreigner and has sons who are citizens of a foreign state.

Unbowed by these limitations, Suu Kyi is confident she will be the real power behind the government.

“I will be above the president…” she replied after being asked by a journalist on her ineligibility to become the head of state.

[This article originally appeared in GMA News Online. It was written by Chino Gaston while on fieldwork for the 2015 Fellowship.]