History is being made in Burma, as hundreds of thousands of resident flock to polling stations to participate in the country’s first democratic election in years. With polls opening at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning, lines were long and voters waited for hours in the hot sun to cast their ballot.
Voter turnout was so high, in fact, that some stations needed to stay open passed the 4:00 p.m. poll closing deadline to accommodate the sheer volume of people anxious to cast their ballot. Ink stamped pinkies flooded social media today as voters showed the proof that they had completed their democratic duty.
Supporters of Burma’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD), led by Suu Kyi, took to the streets, gathering outside of the party’s headquarters to show their support. Dancing, singing, and chanting filled the streets as the big screen TVs covered the election. Excitement shook the crowd every time a yellow ballot was unfurled, revealing a stamp next to a golden peacock, the NLD’s symbol. While some preliminary results might be showcased as early as Monday, officials are reminding the public that it will take days to officially declare a winner.
Optimism is high, however. Voters have expressed their disdain for the 25-year rule of the current government, and the NLD is supported by many as the best hope for a new, better system of governance in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. It would appear that this is a sentiment shared by the majority of the 51 million citizens of the nation who were able to vote, who experienced nationwide isolation under a military dictatorship for the better half of a century.
While the NDL’s members remain confident that they will win a required majority government, the goal of governmental reform is not easily obtained. Twenty five percent of the seats within the parliament and key governmental ministries will still be under military control, and Suu Kyi, or “Mother Suu” as her supported affectionately refer to her, is legally barred from actually becoming president, due to a provision in the nation’s constitution.
On top of that, the NDL is not Burma’s only opposition party, even though they are the largest and most organized. More than 90 smaller parties, mostly created to support the various ethnic groups within Burma, also have a role to play in the formation of the government after this election.
The leaders of the two big parties were front and center in both national and international news Sunday as they cast their votes. The 70-year-old Mother Suu voted in her home constituency of Bahan, while current president Thein Sein coated in the Naypyidaw, his country’s capital. Sein is the formal general who has lead the country’s ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
While commenting on the laws preventing her from ruling, Suu Kyi did not seem shaken, making it clear that she will govern the country anyway, and stating that she will be “above the president,” citing plans that she has apparently already made.
The biggest question surrounding this election; however, is if the results will actually be applied. Sein has said that his government will respect the outcome of Sunday’s election, even if it would require his stepping down from the presidential position. Voters seem like they want to believe him, but many still remember the last election in 1990, in which Suu Kyi and her NDL party won a sweeping majority. The dictatorship in power at the time ignored the democratic results and placed Kyi under house arrest, a sentence that stood off and on for a little over two decades.
Outside observers have also questioned the representation within the voting population, stating that the election cannot be called truly free since some regions of the country, mostly those in which ethnic violence still runs rampant, did not have access to polls. In addition to this, about one million Rohingya Muslims who call Burma their home were denied the right to vote as they are classified as illegal immigrants from nearby Bangladesh by the current government.
This disenfranchisement compared with the military’s entrenched 25 percent of the seats make it hard to see the election as legitimate, but it is still a huge step forward for Burma. The election is being monitored by more than 11,000 outside officials from the Carter Center in the United States, the European Union, and others to ensure that all goes well. Monitors have been placed at polls, and no major problems have been reported as more than 30 million eligible voters turn up to cast their vote for representatives in the upper and lower parliamentary houses, as well as state and regional assemblies.
Support for either of the two main parties, or even the election in general is, undoubtedly, very high in the cities. Outside of them, however, past the busy streets and into the small huts situated on rural farmland, apathy is still high. The 70 percent of the country that earn a living in Burma’s relatively poor agricultural sector have other things to worry about, such as their crops or the river fishing, than politics.
Their livelihood is much more directly affected by the 4-hour round trip it takes some of them to simply make it to the polling stations. Of course it doesn’t help that local candidates rarely, if ever, make these small subsistence-based villages a stop on the campaign trail.
Still, the promise of a new, better government under Suu Kyi has inspired many to take a day from farming or fishing to fight the crowds and cast a ballot. As a testament to the forces of change, Mother Suu is riding high on a huge wave of support that appears to only be tempered by her opponents shortcomings, and she hopes to ride right into the presidential office, no matter what the rules might say.