Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Once More, Without Feeling

No one expects anything other than a big election win for Burma’s ruling junta. A dejected population is giving up on hoping for better.

By Diplomat Special Correspondent for

‘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.

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.’

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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.’

An atmosphere of quiet intimidation and voter ignorance about the process has ensured that the military will get the result it wants—an overwhelming majority on top of the 25 percent of seats already reserved for them in the new parliament. Results are expected within days since many military and civil servants pre-voted. Activist groups such as Generation Wave predict a parliament with less than 10 percent drawn from democratic parties and independents. 

Diplomats say there’s no way of knowing conditions in the 40,000 polling booths around the country, an uncertainty that reflects the tight hold the junta has over the country as everyone must vote in their local ‘quarter,’ overseen by an official; the junta knows everyone down to the smallest hamlet.

Since the junta has refused to accept foreign observers or international media, embassy staff from European nations, the United States and Australia refused to accept a proposed trip by junta officials on polling day to visit some selected voting stations.

Early indications of voter turnout suggest somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of registered voters (considered substantially less than the 30 million eligible voters), but this is skewed towards urban centres. There have been reports of complete disenfranchisement in some ethnic areas and many ethnic groups such as the Kachin say they are preparing for war after refusing to demands by the junta to become a pro-government border militia. Security has been stepped up in Moulmein following reports that Karen guerrillas were also planning bomb attacks there.

Many Burmese and ethnic minorities have chosen to follow Suu Kyi’s call for a total boycott of the election, and this has no doubt impacted voter turnout. Yet many like Daw Sanda who support Suu Kyi say that a boycott wasn’t really an option.

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‘I understand why many people want to boycott the election. The vote will make no difference and the same people will stay in power,’ she says. ‘But I don’t know if I will ever get another chance to vote again—that’s why I did it.’

No one doubts what the election result will be even before it has been announced. What is being spoken of now, in more hushed tones, is whether the junta will indeed release ‘the lady’ next week as it claims it will.

The people of Burma, though, know better than to hope for such things.