Ever since this country’s military nullified the result of the 1990 general election and put the winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest, millions in Myanmar have waited for the day when they could put Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in power.
That day may have arrived. Voters by the millions on Sunday flocked to polling stations, by foot, bus, taxi and bicycle in the cities, and in long tail boats in the vast labyrinth of channels known as the Irrawaddy Delta.
Enthusiasm was high for the country’s first contested general election in a quarter century.
“I am very excited,” said 22-year-old May Thinzar Cho, a resident of Pandaing Village who was voting for the first time. “This is very important day for my country. I want to help bring about change.”
Final results of the election may not be known for several days, and the military could thwart the outcome. Still, there was a palpable sense Sunday that the polling was being carried out in a credible manner and would be honored by the current government.
“In the last election (2010), there was some manipulation,” said Tin Moe Khing, 30, a resident of Toe Nayi village, an Irrawaddy town that is home to about 2,000 people. “This time we hope it will be a fair vote.”
Myanmar’s path to democracy has been ill-starred since the man considered the nation’s founder, Aung San, was assassinated six months before the British granted what was then known as Burma its independence in 1948. The opportunity to overturn the 1990 arrest of his daughter, now known as “Mother Suu,” was a major factor for many of Sunday’s voters.
Daw Hywe Yi, a tailor in Toe Nayi, said her neighbors support Aung San Suu Kyi because she visited the village back in 1989, and also because she is Aung San’s daughter.
“Back in 2010, we voted for the lion,” said Daw Htwe Yi, referring to the symbol of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. “But not much has changed since 2010, so this year we are voting for the star and peacock” – the symbol of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
Toe Nayi village sits some 30 miles west of the former Burmese capital of Rangoon, now called Yangon. The village is effectively an island, sitting on a horseshoe of the Yangon River. A small motorcycle track connects this village to the outside world, but nearly all basic provisions must be brought in by boat.
The villagers are poor, many living in thatched stilt houses and subsisting on fishing and farming. They have no household electricity, other than the car batteries that run their television sets. Recently, villagers said, the USDP helped bring solar panels to many households, allowing them to have electric lights for the first time.
Despite that largesse, few people could be found Sunday who supported “the lion.” Those who voted for the USDP in the 2010 general election said they had done so only because Suu Kyi’s party was not on the ballot, having boycotted it for being rigged.
In Yangon, an epicenter of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, lines stretched down a city block Sunday morning as people prepared to cast ballots in the city’s Dagon Township.
Yin Htwe, who works at a cafe in Yangon’s People’s Park, was bussed over to the polls by her employer, along with dozens of fellow employees.
“I am very happy,” she said. “I finally have a chance to vote!”