Aung San Suu Kyi casts vote in Myanmar's first free election for 25 years

Aung San Suu Kyi casts vote in Myanmar's first free election for 25 years 

Opposition leader and one-time political prisoner battles media scrum to reach the polling station in capital Yangon

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition politician, casts her vote during the first free and fair election for decades on Sunday.    

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition leader, and millions of Burmese have cast their votes in what is being touted as the country’s first free election in 25 years.
The Nobel peace prize-winner’s car inched through battling news photographers outside a school building in Yangon, the city formerly named Rangoon, and her bodyguards parted the crowds to allow her to vote.

Polls opened at 4am across the country, which suffered decades of army-led dictatorship followed by a stumbling reform process. Booths have been erected in schools and monasteries and long queues of people hoping to avoid the heat arrived early and patiently waited, many wearing traditional “longyi” sarongs and some holding children.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a 1990 election by a landslide but the results were nullified by the army generals. Aye Aye Tun, a 30-year-old bank clerk, wants the opposition leader – now 70 – to win in what foreign governments believe will be the country’s most transparent poll in a generation.

Crowds take pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi as she arrives at a polling station in Yangon on Sunday.   

“Everything will change, especially for the poor,” she told the Guardian outside the school, a line of voters behind her. Her little finger was dipped in purple indelible ink, used to make sure the country’s 30 million voters are unable to vote twice.

Even if Aung San Suu Kyi wins the popular vote, she is barred from the presidency by the army-drafted constitution and a quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, making a legislative majority hard to grasp.

The current semi-civilian government has pushed through some change over the past four years, opening up the once-isolated economy, releasing political prisoners and allowing independent newspapers to be published.

Importantly, and unlike the widely dismissed 2010 elections, international election observers had fanned out across the country on Sunday. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, spoke at a small gathering in Yangon where she was working with the Carter Center’s election observation mission.

“We’ve been welcomed into polling stations and every question we’ve asked has been well answered,” she said by a polling station at a monastery, where voters had removed their shoes as a sign of respect.

People line up to vote in a mixed Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu neighbourhood in Mandalay on Sunday.   

But she warned: “We have to see this election within a framework that is not openly democratic in the full sense.”

The run-up to the polls was marred by election inconsistencies, notably the disenfranchisement of the nation’s Muslim Rohingya, a persecuted and stateless minority.

In downtown Yangon, where trees grow from the walls of crumbling British buildings, Yea Htun, an official from Myanmar’s election commission, told the Guardian that 400 of the 700 people registered in the area had turned up early to vote. “Everyone has jobs to get to, but the process has gone well.”

Posters stuck to the sides of buildings along the former colonial capital showed cartoons of how to cast a vote. One has examples of the correct way to fill out ballots, but instead of real candidates it showed drawings of fruit labelled “Mrs Watermelon, Mr Banana and Mr Apple”.

In a nearby alleyway, a queue of voters remained in line at about 11am. A 22-year-old and her 77-year-old grandmother said they were voting for the first time in their lives. “Expect to see change,” the granddaughter said, clutching her smart phone to her chest. 

At the NLD headquarters in Yangon, the red flag with a golden peacock hung from the building. The party will hold a mass gathering as the count trickles in on Sunday. Official results are not expected until early next week.

With foreign investment at stake, the government will want to assure world powers that it is sincere. Last week, US senior national security aide Ben Rhodes said that fair elections would lead to greater sanction relief.

Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at the polling station in Yangon.   

“Obviously it will impact how we look at sanctions,” Rhodes said. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in 2014, a strong sign to international business that the reforms were acceptable to Washington, which only 10 years ago called the regime an “outpost of tyranny”.

President Thein Sein said on Friday “the government and the military will respect and accept the results”.

Jasmin Lorch, from the GIGA Institute of Asian Studies in Hamburg, said: “If the military gets the feeling that its vested interests are threatened, it can always act as a veto player and block further reforms.”

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the elections were fundamentally flawed, citing a lack of an independent election commission with its leader, chairman U Tin Aye, both a former army general and former member of the ruling party.

“Long lines of voters on 8 November won’t make these fundamentally flawed elections free and fair,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The body said ruling party dominance of state media and laws preventing many Muslims in Myanmar from voting have also discredited the poll.

Several hundred thousand Muslims in the country, particularly in north-west Rakhine state, have been disenfranchised from the elections after the government decided in February that holders of temporary ID cards would no longer have the right to vote.

In the Muslim neighbourhood of Tar Mwe in Yangon, Mohamed Hussain, in his 50s, said he “did not vote as a Muslims, but as a citizen”.

Aung San Suu Kyi has also been criticised for not including Muslim candidates in any of her party’s lists. On Thursday, she told journalists not to “exaggerate” the issue.

Aye Myint, a 41-year-old construction labourer and a Muslim, said Aung San Suu Kyi was still the country’s best bet but he was worried that his relatives back in Rakhine could vote. He said: “I can because I moved to Yangon 25 years ago. But I believe that if Aung San Suu Kyi wins there will be progress for Muslims in this country.”

Aung San Suu Kyi casts vote in Myanmar's first free election for 25 years Aung San Suu Kyi casts vote in Myanmar's first free election for 25 years Reviewed by Ajit Kumar on 5:56 PM Rating: 5

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.