They gathered the minute voting ended, two dozen residents of the dirt-poor fringes of Myanmar’s largest city. A silence fell as the seal was peeled off a plastic box of ballots.
It has been 22 years since citizens like these voted in elections that should have brought Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to power. But the generals took over, beginning a long and often silent struggle of wills that won Ms. Suu Kyi a Nobel Peace Prize and, finally, on this historic Sunday more than two decades later, a claim on a seat in parliament.
A regime that under different names and guises has led the country from one disaster to the next seemed on Sunday about to cede political space to the NLD with by-elections in 44 districts around the capital.
The citizens of Mayangone township stood watch outside the polling station to ensure Myanmar’s generals-turned-cabinet ministers did precisely that.
Though there were three election commission members to do the official tally, as well as observers from all six political parties contesting the by-election, residents of Mayangone were not willing to leave the counting to others. Not this time. Not after having their choice stolen from them in 1990.
“One. Two. Three. Four,” the crowd counted in quiet unison as the chief election officer lifted the ballots up for scrutiny, and then placed the wide majority of them into a red laundry hamper marked with the name of the opposition NLD.
“We’re very hopeful right now. But we don’t trust them,” whispered Htay Aung, a 47-year-old vegetable seller, as the counting continued. “We only trust in our mother, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Today, Myanmar woke to a reality that was unimaginable barely a year ago. Ms. Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past three decades under house arrest, seemed set to take a seat in parliament, a turn of events that could mark the beginning of the end of the country’s isolation.
And, for now, Ms. Suu Kyi has put her trust in the political reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein, the general who last year ditched his uniform to become the first nominally civilian president of Myanmar, better known as Burma.
The Globe's Mark MacKinnon tweets from Myanmar
On Sunday, Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD claimed she had won the by-election in Kahwmu, a rural area south of Rangoon in the Irrawaddy River delta that she chose as her constituency in order to highlight the poverty that plagues so much of the country.
The 66-year-old democracy icon will now take a seat in parliament for the first time in her long career of political activism, likely accompanied by upwards of 30 other NLD members. Relying on counts provided by observers in polling stations, the party said Sunday night its candidates won at least 12 by-election seats and was leading in the wide majority of the other 33 seats that were contested.
The NLD’s claims were broadcast on a big screen television set up atop the party’s headquarters in central Rangoon. The modest two-floor office, which most residents stayed clear of in recent years in order to avoid police attention, was quickly surrounded by several thousand cheering and dancing supporters. Others drove through the streets waving the NLD’s red flag and chanting “Auntie Suu has won!”
Once the official by-election results are known, and allegations of irregularities are examined, the government could get the reward it has been seeking in exchange for opening up the political system: an easing of the harsh international sanctions imposed on the long-time pariah state by Canada and other Western countries.
“We’ve got to think about how we deal with Myanmar,” said Senator Consiglio Di Nino, one of two Canadian parliamentarians who was in Rangoon to witness the by-elections on the last-minute invitation of the Myanmar government. He said the elections went smoothly in the constituencies he and Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai visited, except for “a few hiccups.”
The NLD filed more than 50 election day complaints, most of them related to supporters not being allowed to vote because their names were missing from official lists at the polling stations.
The United States and European Union are also expected to review their sanctions policies in the coming weeks, although major changes will depend on what Ms. Suu Kyi says following the announcement of the official results. Sunday’s by-elections won’t affect the balance of power in the country, and the next general election isn’t scheduled until 2015.
If the results are confirmed – and the official counting is expected to take days – the seeming landslide would be particularly impressive given that the 45 constituencies where the by-elections were held were seen as some of the safest regime seats in the country. Nearly all of them were won handily by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party during a November, 2010, general election that the NLD boycotted while Ms. Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Most were made vacant because the MPs who won the seats had since been promoted to cabinet or the executive branch.
Ms. Suu Kyi, who was freed days after the 2010 election, now looks set to become the de facto leader of the opposition in Myanmar’s 440-seat lower house of parliament. Her faction will be dwarfed by the more than 300 seats controlled by the USDP and the army, 110 seats of them reserved by the constitution for serving officers. But her decision to join a parliament she once scorned as “a parody of democracy” is an expression of faith in the surprising political reforms introduced by Mr. Thein Sein in the year since he took over as head of state from retired junta boss Senior General Than Shwe.
In the past 12 months, Mr. Thein Sein has met with Ms. Suu Kyi, allowed the NLD to register and released thousands of regime opponents from prison. His cabinet ministers have also spoken of the need for more media freedom and foreign investment, though actual reforms have come slower than words.
One post-election worry has to be how much of this process rests on the frail shoulders of Ms. Suu Kyi, who was forced by exhaustion and illness to stop campaigning in the last days before the vote. She was clearly feeling better on Friday, when she deftly handled questions from foreign and domestic media for nearly 100 minutes at a press conference held on the lawn of her family’s crumbling lakeside mansion.
She denied fatigue was an issue during the campaign, but did admit she had been feeling “delicate” in recent days, without offering any further details. On Sunday, she toured Kahwmu in the morning before returning to Rangoon to await the official results.
Ahead of the vote, she sounded a note of caution when asked to rate Myanmar’s democracy on a scale of 1 to 10. “We’re trying to get to 1,” she said before listing the NLD’s complaints about the way the by-elections were conducted. But, she said, the campaign had paid dividends no matter what comes next. “It is the rising political awareness of our people which we regard as our greatest triumph,” she said.
Many voters recalled the stolen 1990 election as they cast their ballots Sunday. “I voted for the same party today that I did in 1990,” beamed 52-year-old La La Win as she took her 10-year-old granddaughter along to a polling station in the industrial suburb of Dagoon Seikkan.
“Our will is even stronger this time,” said Kyi Kyi Hlang, a 45-year-old who cast her ballot in central Rangoon with a Muslim niqab covering all but her eyes. “We’ve had so many difficulties since then, but it Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is in parliament, there can be so many changes.”
At the polling station in Mayangone, political awareness now means knowing for sure that almost everyone in the neighbourhood feels that Myanmar needs to change. The crowd-sourced counting of the ballots grew more excited as the red laundry basket brimmed with NLD votes, repeatedly forcing the election officers to push down on the pile to make room for more votes in favour of Ms. Suu Kyi’s party.
“Four hundred and thirty-nine!” several in the crowd shouted in unison as the vote counting ended. There were 525 ballots cast. The NLD had taken more than 80 per cent.
The dirt road outside the polling station was potholed and strewn with litter. Alongside sat a still stream of untreated sewage. But Sunday brought smiles to Mayangone.
“When we voted in 1990, we were so nervous, we thought the NLD would not be allowed win,” said 66-year-old Khin May Wi after voting along with her grown daughter. “Today, I’m not worried. This time the country will be allowed to develop.”