Voters cast their ballots in Myanmar today in elections that include opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi, a sign that the military regime is opening up.
Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
As voters filed into the sandy courtyard of a school on the outskirts of Myanmar's largest city to cast their ballots in today's parliamentary by-elections, many carrying parasols to shade them from the sun, a stocky young man stood to one side watching them, filling in a form.
Eight years ago, Chan Tha Kyaw was Myanmar’s youngest political prisoner, a 15 year old schoolboy locked up for joining a demonstration against the military government. Today he was an unofficial election observer for a small NGO, monitoring the progress towards democracy that has transformed his life.
As the government has changed, offering new political liberties, so has Chan Tha Kyaw. Now he is ready to believe in the reforms, and to engage with them. “We need a new approach,” he says.
Many voters in Mayangone, a residential suburb of Yangon, seem to share his faith in these by-elections, even though too few seats are at stake to threaten the military-backed government’s majority. In this they are following Aung San Suu Kyi, who is leading her National League for Democracy into the election after boycotting polls in 2010 widely seen as fraudulent. The NLD is claiming she has won her constituency, which would put her in public office for the first time.
“I had no problems voting,” says Hnin Wei Aung, a young woman dressed in her Sunday best as she emerged from a polling station. “I felt freer than I did in 2010, and I’m confident my vote will be counted properly.”
The atmosphere running up to election day has surprised veteran observers of the traditionally tightly controlled politics in Myanmar (also known as Burma). Newspapers have been more daring, Ms. Suu Kyi’s portrait – once strictly banned – is now visible everywhere in Yangon, on posters, tee-shirts, flags, and lapel badges, and tea shops have been abuzz with talk of the elections.
“It is clearer to people that they will not get reprisals if they vote NLD,” says one voter, who preferred nonetheless to remain anonymous. “Before, only brave people voted against the government. Now they don’t care.”
Some voters, however, remain skeptical, in the light of the rigged 2010 election and a 1990 vote for a constituent assembly in which the NLD won a landslide victory that the military government then ignored.
“I voted today with fairly high confidence, but I still don’t know if the government will lie about the results,” says Kyaw Kyaw, a government employee.