This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 16 November 2015
With tens of millions of ballots cast and countless futures pondered, it has all come to this. Myanmar is forced to watch and wait as the National League for Democracy manoeuvres itself closer to power.
As the final results of the 8 November vote are tallied, what happens next will determine how much respect Myanmar’s reformers can demand from their own people, and from the rest of the world.
As you read “New Mandala” today it’s well worth taking a moment to ponder how it happened.
In the short version, this story gets up to speed under the old dictatorship in the uneven first decade of this new millennium. Talk of constitutional compacts never received much warm endorsement, mostly because the old regime had a habit of turning even its friends into bitter enemies.
When U Khin Nyunt’s military intelligence network was purged in 2004 those rare creatures – Myanmar optimists – started imagining at least another full decade of darkness and misery.
Nothing improved with the abortive Saffron Revolution and then the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. A sad shadow will forever hang over the 2008 constitution, bulldozed into existence with a fake popular vote only weeks after the natural disaster.
Yet something else happened in that crucial period. General Thein Sein and other senior military figures sought to create more space for a new political system.
The 2010 elections were hardly a democratic success. I remember the next day giving them a score of 1 out of 10 in a radio interview. That now seems harsh, but it felt right at the time and matched the gloomy mood.
The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest was the next jolt to the system.
And then the whirlwind really started to pick up speed. The new government, in 2011, began to welcome a stream of foreign visitors seeking to peek at the new Myanmar. They included all the luminaries from US President Barack Obama on down.
There were conferences and envoys and excitements galore. More plans were hatched, including bold ones aimed at integrating Myanmar back into the international community. The World Economic Forum and Southeast Asian Games in 2013 made more people than ever sit up and take notice.
And then in 2014, of course, there were new challenges as the early waves of exuberance were replaced by the need to get the hard work done. Reforming such a stale system was never going to happen without sweat and toil.
Last year also brought the fresh excitement of ASEAN summit season, with all the luminaries and bright lights. President Obama returned for an encore, as did so many of the globe’s great-and-good.
At the same time, changes to the legal, business and political environment came thick and fast. Everyone learned to grumble about rising prices, particularly if they spent their time in the foreigner-friendly enclaves that began to proliferate around the country.
During these hectic years there was, in places, a gold rush with a constant stream of new opportunities being presented and assessed.
The Myanmar people learned, en masse and in a hurry, to take advantage of the new freedoms. Internet use boomed. So did a more-or-less free press. The simple fact was that nobody, even the most ardent of censors, had enough time to monitor everything that was going on.
Those who fell foul of the remaining restrictions tended to be unlucky, and their cases were increasingly seen as aberrations to the overall pattern. Such assessments are being constantly reconsidered by analysts looking for any chance to argue that nothing has changed.
But as the vote last week shows, there is much that has changed. Myanmar is quickly becoming more democratic than most of its Southeast Asian peers. The military still keeps its gloved hand resting on the brake but the pace and intensity of change are undeniable.
The open campaigning and electoral success of the National League for Democracy is perhaps the most striking example. It is bolstered by the freedom to report, to comment, to talk, to think.
The fear that once pervaded Myanmar society is mostly gone. Where it lingers, the new government will need to work extra hard to convince the wary that this election is for them too.
That will be most important in the far-flung provinces, from the mountains of eastern Shan State to the swamps of northern Rakhine. People who have rarely felt included in Myanmar’s national project will be looking for reason to celebrate this result and hope for a better future.
Their longstanding grievances about exclusion, chauvinism and conflict will take time to remedy. But a government elected by the people has a much better chance of writing a new chapter in the country’s history.
That chapter starts right now, as people wake to the realisation that the old order has been replaced by something new, yet tentative and ready for creative contributions.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.