‘This election is nothing special,’ says Daw Sanda as she reclines in her home after voting in Burma’s first election in 20 years. ‘I really love Aung San Suu Kyi, but we don’t have that choice. Our situation is hopeless but I wanted to vote today for the kamauk (or hat—the symbol for the National Democratic Force) as a protest against our leaders. It’s the only thing I can do.’
For a nation supposedly embarking on a democratic path, there was little fanfare in the run-up to Sunday’s election. Few posters adorn Yangon’s crumbling Victorian buildings except billboards depicting the ubiquitous white lion of the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). There have been no TV ads or debates in the tightly-controlled state media, and barely any campaigning in the streets.
In most countries, election campaigns are typically a noisy affair, but not in Burma’s military dictatorship. After decades of repression, the subject of the election was broached in quiet whispers in teashops and through resigned jokes in the privacy of people’s homes.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Sanda’s sister, Daw Thida, voted nearly a week before Sunday’s ballot—as a civil servant there was pressure on her and her colleagues to ‘pre-vote.’ But they only had one choice—the USDP.
‘It was the same in 2008, when the minister told our boss that we all had to vote “yes” to the referendum for a new constitution,’ she says. ‘So we had to do it in the office in front of everyone.’
Both women say there was a big difference between the atmosphere of this vote and the last election in 1990, won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
‘Last time, there was a festival atmosphere and people were so happy. We were excited then. But they didn’t hand over power, so we have no expectations now. This time I have no feeling.’
Sitting on a low stool at a teashop near the Sule Pagoda, another man paints a similar picture as he speaks softly from behind the Myanmar Times newspaper.
‘This time is different from 1990,’ he says. ‘Today I watched people in a queue vote like robots.’