I was just nine years old when elections were held in Myanmar in 1990 for the first time in 30 years. I lived in North Okkalapa township at that time and there was a ballot station next to my house.
My brothers – or, I should say, my “cousin brothers” – and I were happy to see the big crowds at the station and we played with all the other children in our neighbourhood, running around all the people queuing to vote. There was a real carnival atmosphere, as the government had encouraged everyone to get out and have their say.
We had no idea what “voting” meant. What was it the adults were all talking excitedly about?
Regardless, we had a lot of fun because we did not have to do our school lessons and also escaped our enforced daily afternoon nap, which was something we all hated. Our parents were only focused on the final result of election; we took the rare opportunity to ask for pocket money, which was given freely, and bought snacks at the shop. While others were voting for freedom that day, my friends and I felt that we had already got it.
But our “democracy”, our time in the sun – like that of the National League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – lasted for only one day. The next morning we had to get up and go to school, and in the afternoon my mum forced me to sleep when I wanted to go out and play with my friends in the neighbourhood again.
A lot has changed in the intervening 20 years. My mum no longer makes me nap in the afternoon (conversely, now I usually want to nap after lunch). But many things have not changed. The military is still in charge, still in control, even though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party thumped the National Unity Party in 1990.
Now I am almost 30 and had the chance to vote for the first time on November 7. While I, like most of my generation, know little about politics, I know what is going on in my country. We want change; we need change. I resolved to vote for the party that I thought had the best chance of giving me what I desired and also hoped other people would share my idea.
There were only eight or nine people queuing when I arrived at the station in the morning but after waiting for 25 minutes the line did not move at all. Some people were not on the electoral roll and were in a heated argument with the election commission staff.
A woman who looked to be about 55 was not on the list of eligible voters in our ward, despite all the other members of her family being able to vote. Her complaints finally came to nothing; she was not allowed to vote.
Then we heard a man leave the station and complain loudly: “It seems so strange and difficult to accept that a couple can live at the same address for many years and one is included on the voting list and the other not is not.”
It turned out he had come to the voting station with his wife – who was able to vote – but his name was not included so he lost his right to vote. He seemed so frustrated, longing his chance to give a vote after many years. Finally, he got the message: he was wasting his time. Waiting and complaining in front off the office was also dangerous; two policemen wandered from across the road towards him.
As I was watching this unfold, an old lady behind me whispered: “Which parties are contesting in this township? Which one should I vote for?”
When I turned around to face her, a Hindu woman in her 20s standing behind the old lady nodded her head in silent agreement.
“Yeah, me too. I don’t know anything about the election, I have no idea how to vote,” she said.
I was stunned and momentarily could not find the words to reply to them.
In my mind, I was speaking a lot: “Oh my God, they are queuing to vote but they have no idea which party they should vote for.”
I wondered how many people were standing outside the 40,000 ballots stations across the country and whispering the same confused questions. The pair probably interpreted my long silence as a sign I didn’t want to answer them but really I just felt sorry for them. But not just them. I felt sorry for my township and my country; the future of the Myanmar people.
Later, when it came my turn to draw the voting paper from the election commission staff, I found my name was spelled wrong on their voting list. Silently I prayed they would still let me vote. It felt like I had to wait an eternity as they discussed my fate but finally they handed over the ballot papers.
I did my duty as a citizen. I voted. There are no words to describe my happiness.
But my pleasure did not last much long. It disappeared on my way home, when I was chatting with a trishaw driver.
“I have not chosen to vote for any party,” the 44-year-old man said. “Ahh. I am not interested at all in the election. For poor people like me, we don’t have time to think about it carefully. Politics, voting, the election – it won’t fill our stomachs.”
“Some people say that we need to vote if we want change for our country. But I think nothing will change in the future whether we vote or not. Commodity prices are even going up because of the election,” he added.
Many people also shared his view and did not expect any positive change from the election, including my father. They said they already knew what the result would be, who would ultimately win and who would continue to control the country. What they were worried about was that the election would make the situation worse.
And then there were the people – including some of my friends and family – who voted for the widely hated Union Solidarity and Development Party, something I never expected them to do. How could they vote for a party formed by the military, the very people who had made us suffer?
“We know the situation well. We know what party we should vote for and what party we should not vote for. But it was not really a choice for us. We voted for the USDP because our sons work for the government. We were worried that something bad would happen to them if we did not vote for the government party,” said a couple from South Dagon in their 50s.
There may be a lot of people like them. They are educated and know very well how the military government treats the people. But it is sometimes difficult for people to bring about change because we have all been oppressed, been under their control, for many years. Sometimes it’s just hard to imagine change.
For a brief period on Sunday night, I could see a kind of change was within our grasp. I’d heard informally from friends that the NDF had won many constituencies in Yangon, including my own. The USDP candidate was trailing far behind in third. The military party had effectively lost the city to the democratic parties but I knew it would be a vastly different story in the villages.
Three days on we still don’t know the official result, but it’s clear the USDP has won a massive majority.
Many of the seats the NDF was leading they have now lost; in Sanchaung, the one seat where a government minister was defeated, the election commission is recounting votes and not allowing parties scrutinise the process. In my own township, the despised USDP candidate is believed to have leapfrogged the two democratic candidates who were leading, following personal intervention from the Mayor of Yangon.
It’s fair to say 36 parties, and probably close to 29 million voters, are disgusted, ashamed at what’s happened. Personally, I feel helpless. For a brief period, one short evening, I thought things were changing for the better in my country. Once again, those hopes have been dashed. I am reminded of what my dad told me a few weeks ago: “Why vote? The USDP have already won.”
It turned out he was right.
The question is what happens from here. Sure, people are becoming more engaged and involved in the election process – even some who chose not to vote – now that they realise exactly what has taken place. But I’m not sure how that can translate into positive change in the future.