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Turning Toward Democracy, Burma Casts Votes In Historic Election

Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy appear headed for victory.

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RANGOON, Burma — Among the 32 million Burmese eligible to vote in their country’s first free national election in 25 years, Aye Aye Miu, 39, was sitting Sunday on a plastic chair outside of her store, which specializes in Buddhist religious gifts. Holding an iPad she’d been using to keep up with the latest news, she explained that she had lined up to vote at her polling station at 5:30 a.m. and cast her ballot 15 minutes later.

So who got her vote? “I voted for Mother,” she said, using a frequent honorific for Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and head of the National League for Democracy. “I’m doing this for my children, to make sure that their generation sees change,” she said, patting the head of her 9-year-old son. “I want them to have a smooth future.”

It was Aung San Suu Kyi who won the last election, back in 1990, but the military refused to recognize the result, took over the government, and cast Burma, officially known as Myanmar, into another quarter-century of military rule. Since then, and amid intense international pressure, Burma’s generals have slowly opened up the country for democracy and reform. Sunday’s election represented a signal moment in the country’s often rocky transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Early reports indicated Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD are again headed toward victory. Her party has been confidently forecasting a strong showing for the party’s parliamentary candidates, and reports late Sunday showed her party leading in Rangoon, Mandalay, and Naypyidaw, the capital. Official results likely won’t be in for another 36 hours.

“Time to Change” is the NLD’s campaign slogan, and many voters seem to be taking it to heart. Four years ago, President Thein Sein, an ex-general and former member of the military elite that has ruled this country since 1962, began a reform program for what until then had been one of Asia’s longest running dictatorships. The government eased its hold on the press, released political prisoners, and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her political activism, to campaign for a seat in parliament.

Yet the military establishment has been careful to keep key levers of power for itself — including a constitutional provision that reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for military officers. The ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has retained a stranglehold over the national administration. A tiny group of tycoons with long-standing ties to the generals still runs the economy. The constitution includes a provision designed to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency by not allowing anyone married to a foreigner or with foreign children to hold the post. Aung San Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, and their two sons are British nationals.

In short, despite many changes, the country remains under the control of the same people that have been in charge for more than half a century.

This is precisely what voters now hope to change — and they’re willing to overlook what might have counted as NLD shortcomings under normal conditions. Maung Maung Hla, 39, a driver, proudly displayed his ink-stained pinky finger Sunday, evidence that he’d cast his vote. He had to wait in line for almost two hours early this morning before he finally got his ballot. “I voted for the candidate who can lead the country,” he said, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi. “I voted for change.” Maung Maung Hla is a Muslim, but the NLD’s refusal to include a single Muslim on its candidate list — an apparent reaction to pressure from Buddhist ultranationalists — doesn’t seem to have deterred him: “That doesn’t bother me at all.” It’s not entirely clear that other members of the country’s sizable Muslim minority share that view.

The military has shaped the country’s political structure in such a way that it will still retain enormous influence even if the NLD scores a landslide win. Yet Burmese citizens and civil society organizations are doing their best to make sure that voters will have their say. As the polls closed, a group of young Burmese in identical dark blue T-shirts huddled around computers in an 11th-story office in downtown Rangoon. Members of a group called Kyeet.org (“kyeet” is the Burmese word for “watch”), they were collating data from 2,000 citizen election monitors all over the country who were using a special smartphone app to report election irregularities.

International election observers have cited numerous deficiencies in the voting so far. In the most egregious case, some 4 million overseas Burmese were excluded from the polls due to onerous registration rules. For all its obvious imperfections, though, this election will still offer Burmese citizens their first chance for real political participation in a generation. So far they seem keen to seize the opportunity.

Photo credit: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

 @ccaryl

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