News / Asia

Rangoon Diary: Burma's Elections

A woman casts her ballot at a local polling station on Sunday, 7 Nov. 2010, in Bago, about 90 km northeast of  Rangoon, Burma.
A woman casts her ballot at a local polling station on Sunday, 7 Nov. 2010, in Bago, about 90 km northeast of Rangoon, Burma.
Kate WoodsomeBarry Newhouse

Burma's tightly controlled election was declared a sham by the opposition months ago when the military-run government took measures to ensure its allies would retain firm control over the country. Initial voting results indicate the military's plan has succeeded.  But for millions of Burmese too young to recall the country's last election in 1990, the vote was a unique exercise in civic participation. In the main city, Rangoon, political campaigns and public rallies were rare venues for citizens to voice their opinions, providing a snapshot into a political culture stunted by an authoritarian government.

A Burmese man prays at a temple in Bago, northeast of Rangoon, on Election Day.
A Burmese man prays at a temple in Bago, northeast of Rangoon, on Election Day.

Foreign journalists were barred from covering the vote, but VOA has been speaking with a freelance reporter in Rangoon. Her name is being withheld to  allow her to continue to report.  The following is a selection of her interviews that were conducted before, during and after the vote.

The Political Climate in Rangoon

Are people in Rangoon as pessimistic about the election as critics outside the country?

There is very little political apathy going on at the moment. I think a lot of the foreign press is reporting that people are either too cynical or don't care or don't know enough about politics. Or they feel despair because they're afraid that nothing's going to change. But the mood in the city at the moment, especially when you talk to candidates who are campaigning, people are really excited that for the first time in basically 20 years, there has been open political activity, open political discussion.

[For example,] taxi drivers are talking about politics. The other day I was in a taxi, and the taxi driver starts saying, "Myanmar. We're like North Korea." And I said, "No, North Korea's worse." He then said, "No. It's true. We even have a nuclear program with them." And normally taxi drivers would never talk that openly.

A street vendor carries her son and bananas on a street in Rangoon.
A street vendor carries her son and bananas on a street in Rangoon.

Do you think just the fact that there is some sort of political process that people are allowed to take part in is empowering them to discuss issues that they normally wouldn't?

Absolutely. It's a huge change. And the fact is there is an election that is being approved by the regime. There is open political activity going on. People are campaigning in the streets. People are talking about problems that they want fixed and that they want their candidates to be addressing. People are talking about what they don't like about the current regime.  People used to only talk about that in confidence, in strict confidence, if they knew that you weren't somehow going to use that information to get at them.

Do you think that people expect to see changes after the election as well, or is the process itself enough?

I think a lot of people are happy with the process itself.  People are saying, "Look, whether things change or not, we're having an election. Maybe this election isn't the important one.  Maybe it's the next one that's going to be in five years. Maybe that's the one where we'll see real change. Maybe this is just a test run, but this test run is really important."  So there are people who have that opinion... exactly what you just said, it's just the fact that it's happening.

And then there are some people who are really cynical about it and they say, "Look the vote is stacked. Just by sheer numbers.  It's totally stacked in favor of the USDP [Union Solidarity and Development Party]," which is the proxy party for the current regime. And people think that is just further entrenching the regime.  And then there are other people who say a lot of the people who are running on behalf of the USDP don't want to be politicians. These are people who were forced to be politicians. The USDP has a candidate running in every single constituency. There is not a single constituency that does not have somebody from that party running.

A member of Burna's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party walks past her portrait outside the party's headquarters, Rangoon.
A member of Burna's detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party walks past her portrait outside the party's headquarters, Rangoon.

Among the opposition groups, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party decided not to take part in the election. Since then, there has been a fair amount of second-guessing about that decision. Do people discuss the NLD's decision?

Yes, people talk all the time about what a shame it was. That they've really shot themselves in the foot. The NLD [National League for Democracy] is no longer a legal party, but the legacy of the NLD has not left the country for sure. The NDF [National Democratic Force], the splinter party, there's this really sort of toxic rivalry between the NDF and the NLD, and a lot of the other independent candidates are sort of condemning the rivalry. Not condemning either one of the parties, but just condemning the rivalry, saying it's silly, it's a waste of time, it's not good for the political climate. But it does seem like it's a shame that they've lost a really wonderful opportunity to find a way to reawaken the party's spirit.

on Dipity.

The Political Debate

To the outside world, the key issues in Burma's election appear to be, "Do we chose democracy or do we stay with military rule?"  But inside the country there are different political debates taking place.  How much influence have Burmese returnees had in those internal political discussions?

One of the things that is so interesting about this race is that it seems like it is really a moment when three eras in Burmese history are coming together and arguing over what the next era will be.  The three parties being the USDP, which represents the current regime, the status quo; the second group is the NUP [the National Unity Party]; and then the third group is this group of independent opposition parties who represent a "glory time" in Burmese history right after independence. And these are all people who are the sons and daughters of famous politicians. Similar to Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the daughter of General Aung San, a national hero who is often credited with gaining independence for Burma and uniting all of the ethnic groups.

But all of these people, the people in the NUP, the people in the opposition groups, they're largely all sort of within the family. It's all people who are the sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters of famous politicians of the past.  So it is not people typically who have been raised abroad and then returned, although a lot of them have had at least some education abroad.  But it is definitely a very Burmese political movement.

And how much influence or how much of a role have young people played in this election?

Almost none.  Before the NLD disbanded, people would talk about the youth movement in the NLD, and they'd name names and they'd talk about 60 year-olds, and 60 year-olds would be referring to the "new" generation. So, there aren't many young people.

Is it apathy or is it just an "old boys club?"

It's partially an "old boys club."  A lot of the democratic parties are not particularly democratically structured.  It's sort of like who's got money and who's got a name and who's got a good family.  Part of it is also that the last time that people were making new parties and organizing themselves politically was in 1990.  Now all of those people are in their 60's.  And since then there haven't been people who have been becoming political leaders.  So the idea is that now, during this election, we'll have another group of young political leaders that might emerge, either by joining parties or learning from the older leaders that are now sort of passing on the torch.

Media Censorship, Self-Censorship

A Burmese man reads a newspaper reporting on the elections as he waits for trishaw passengers.
A Burmese man reads a newspaper reporting on the elections as he waits for trishaw passengers.

Media inside Burma is censored, but there is information trickling out from interviews like this one. How many people are there like you, very discreetly transmitting news outside?

There are quite a few foreign journalists in town at the moment.  And it's actually quite shocking how many of them were able to get visas.  These are people with news Web sites and people you could have easily "Googled" at an embassy.  And it's clear that the regime knows and is allowing at least a few foreign journalists to come in.  But for the most part, it's been very difficult because people are quite paranoid regardless of whether or not an actual threat exists. But people have been quite paranoid.  It's been difficult to get people to talk to you.  It's been difficult to get people to allow you to take photos and that sort of stuff.  

You're saying that Burmese people are paranoid.


Are you paranoid?

Sometimes.  Talking to you now on the phone, sometimes I'll hear the line sort of crackle. And I'll be like, "Oh no I've been found out." But definitely there are moments when, for example, you will see an orange motorbike in the street and it will be a normal looking man in a lungi, carrying a tiffin [lunch pail], not looking particularly suspicious. But you'll think and realize motorbikes have been banned for quite some time.  And anybody with an orange motorbike is definitely working for the special branch security. So, anybody who is under observation will be followed around by somebody on an orange motorbike. Whenever you do see an orange motorbike riding around town it probably means they are on the job.

In a country that has very little free information, it seems a lot of the news is based on rumors.

Yes, this is a city that's a small town that runs on gossip.  Everybody knows everybody.  Everybody is somebody's cousin. And everybody loves to talk. And nobody is particularly sure about what is real and what's really happening.

So it must be quite mentally and emotionally exhausting to constantly kind of check your reality and check whether or not what you are doing is going to put you in some kind of a danger.

Yes.  The nice thing is that this is probably one of the world's more friendly totalitarian dictatorship regimes, and the worst thing that will probably happen to someone like me is that you'll be escorted to the airport and immediately deported.  It's not like you're going to be jailed or shot or tortured.  They pretty much want anybody who is posing a threat in this way to just leave and never come back.   

You have the protection of your foreign identity, your foreign passport.

Precisely.  It's far more risky for someone who doesn't have the freedom to simply leave, or the protection of a foreign consul.  Basically the people who are really at risk are the Burmese citizens who are running for office.  Even though the USDP announced at a press conference that the military regime would never again by force seize power from a democratically elected government, people really don't know what is going to happen to all these people who stuck their necks out during the campaign period.

Subtle Shifts in the Political Landscape

In an earlier interview, you said that people have been excited in that they are talking very openly, but I would imagine that they are very nervous about the unknown consequences.

Yes.  For example, an independent candidate that I was speaking to mentioned that whenever he has been campaigning, at first a crowd will gather.  And once a crowd gathers, he'll notice that there's somebody from Special Branch standing around taking photos, freaking people out, and they'll sort of disperse.  So people are definitely noticing that people are watching and getting ready for what's going to happen after the election.

Voters line up at a polling station to cast ballots in Bago, about 90 km northeast of Rangoon.
Voters line up at a polling station to cast ballots in Bago, about 90 km northeast of Rangoon.

A lot of people are saying that the changes that can occur as a result of this election are quite minor, but the significant changes are that there is sort of a day of reckoning for all of these generals and members of the military who until this point have been appointed and now are finally sort of up for election.  And a lot of the powerful ministers are going to be changing over the next few months. In three months, in 90 days, when the parliament actually sits, all the people that we are dealing with now-all the generals that we see every day in the New Light of Myanmar are going to be different faces. That's pretty important, a pretty significant change. They might not be entirely new faces, but power's going to be shifting around.

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