First published on Vice News, November 7 2015
Kyaw Min Tun was just a 15-year-old kid in 1997, but he still took to the streets of Myanmar’s capital Yangon to protest the lack of freedoms in the country, which was ruled by a military junta. The demonstration was inspired and encouraged by a leader who, 18 years later, stands poised to lead the nation that used to be known as Burma.
“We were young and upset. We felt completely ignored,” Kyaw said, recalling the protest he staged all those years ago under the golden shade of the iconic 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. “Only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi understood what we, the students and the youth in general, wanted.”
Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s democratic icon and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. As many as 1,171 races are being contested by more than 6,000 candidates spread among 92 parties in the country’s first openly-contested general election in 25 years on Sunday. The spotlight is on just two parties with the most at stake at the national level: Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and the incumbent military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Assuming the election’s aftermath goes smoothly, it will be the first democratic transfer of power in Myanmar since 1960. For regional neighbors and the international community, the vote is a harbinger of the country’s future.
With so much at stake for Myanmar’s 53 million people, the voting itself will be closely monitored, both locally and internationally. In a written statement, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on rights in Myanmar highlighted issues that called into question the “free and fair” nature of the elections, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens will not be able to vote.
There is also the sudden disenfranchisement of some 760,000 people whose temporary voter registration cards have been scrapped. Most of them are members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, who have also found themselves targeted by four “protection of race and religion laws” recently pushed through parliament on a rising wave of rancorous Buddhist nationalism.
Still, after more than five decades of military dictatorship and decades of stagnation under an isolationist, paranoid policy called “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” dramatic reforms have taken place in the last five years. Press freedom has been greatly extended, thousands of political prisoners have been granted amnesty, and foreign investment has started flowing into the country.
‘Everyone talks about the changes that have happened, but I only see positive changes for the rich.’
In the eyes of the US administration, the recent opening of Myanmar is considered a major diplomatic coup, a success of a carrot-and-stick policy of dropping and imposing sanctions. The country’s importance to the US was cemented in 2012 when President Barack Obama became the first-ever American leader to visit the resource-rich country, praising the early reforms but warning, “The flickers of progress must not be extinguished.”
In the quiet grandeur of Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park, Thant Zin Zaw sits under the shade of a small tree. With two electrical engineering textbooks open, his eyes dart across his notes, and with a pen he adds and strikes out sections of text. His demeanor is immediately recognizable as that of a student with an important exam coming up.
“I feel optimistic for my future and that of my country. Maybe 10 years ago [my studying] would all be for nothing, but I feel confident the jobs will come now,” he said. “As we continue to open up, I feel other countries will begin to truly see us as a partner in the international community, and that would help us all so much. Things are changing fast.”
He laughs when he looks down at his phone. “You know how much things have changed? My SIM card would have cost me over $1,000 just 5 years ago, now it’s $1.”
Along with the expanding telecommunications sector, increased construction, imports and tourism have produced visible changes in Myanmar, whose economy grew almost 9 percent a year on average in the 10 years to 2014. Yet disparities between urban and rural areas grow ever larger. The International Monetary Fund recently said “imbalances have increased significantly over the past year.”
It’s a contrast that has not gone unnoticed by Win Shwe Sin. At 50, she calls herself “too old to be important” but she still yearns to feel something positive from her country’s growing wealth.
“Everyone talks about the changes that have happened, but I only see positive changes for the rich,” she said, reclining on the back of a truck by the Five Religions Temple. For 20 years, she has acted as guard for cars, rickshaws, or bicycles parked on her stretch of road, rarely taking a day off.
“If I don’t work, I don’t eat. I still struggle to buy basic food like rice. I only make 4,000 kyat ($3.10) a day. I need to work to feed myself that day,” she said.
She sees the upcoming elections as a way to greater economic opportunities for all. “Not for me, but for my boys,” she said. “It’s about who is best for the poor and the next generation. My vote is NLD and I have high expectations for Daw [Aung San] Suu Kyi.”
The country’s controversial 2008 constitution has managed to survive modification by opposition parties, still guaranteeing the military a quarter of the seats in parliament, and a place in the heart of the governing body for years to come. And because the next president will be chosen by parliament, the armed forces will maintain a say on who leads the country.
The constitution also contains an article barring from the presidency people whose children are citizens of a foreign nation, which includes Suu Kyi, whose sons hold British passports. That would be the case even if the NLD wins, as is widely expected. It’s a blow for many NLD supporters and an argument for those who say the election won’t be completely free and fair, but Suu Kyi herself has remained defiant, striking an almost combative tone at her final press conference Thursday.
When a journalist asked how she would lead the government considering Myanmar has no prime minister, she answered curtly.
“Who said I’m going to be prime minister? The prime minister is below the president,” she said. “I said I’m going to be above the president.”