A bittersweet celebration in Burma

RANGOON -- Yesterday, on the day of the long-awaited election, I decided to return to Independence Ward, the Rangoon neighborhood I wrote about in my piece last week on the difficult choices facing Aung San Suu Kyi. It turned out to be a good place to be. Many of my journalist colleagues opted to spend the day in Kawhmu, the rural district on the edge of Rangoon where the Lady herself was running for a seat. But I figured it might be rewarding to go to a place that wasn't at the forefront of the coverage. I wasn't disappointed.

When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was a huge crowd gathered in front of one of the local offices of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's party. Members of the local NLD chapter had set up a big chalkboard at the edge of the street, where they planned to tally the votes as the results came in. Even though there were no votes to count yet, since the polls were still open, onlookers were milling around in front of the board, anxiously discussing possible scenarios. NLD members were sitting in the small café in front of the office, sipping soft drinks and trading gossip. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to be out on the street, some of them wearing T-shirts sporting NLD insignia or portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. (Expressions of support for the pro-government party, on the other hand, were conspicuous by their absence.) The place was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Ye Win Htun, an NLD spokesman, put it simply: "People want to know all about their election."

He wasn't kidding. Again and again, the voters I encountered told me that they had woken up early that morning so that they could be at the polls as soon as they opened at 6 AM. This was the first time that any of them had been able to cast a vote for the NLD since 1990, when the party had won an overwhelming victory in the constituent assembly election (subsequently brutally suppressed by the reigning military junta). Everyone I spoke to was thrilled to have had the opportunity to vote for their local NLD candidate, and, by extension, for Aung San Suu Kyi: "I'm very happy," said one elderly gentleman who gave his name only as Albert. "It feels good."

Judging by the rest of my conversations, his words neatly captured the prevailing sentiment. Interestingly, it soon became apparent that many of the bystanders (drinking in the anticipatory atmosphere) had come to this neighborhood -- which is part of Mingalar Taung Nyunt, the township that encompasses a big chunk of central Rangoon -- from other areas that weren't voting on this day. (Remember, yesterday's vote was only a parliamentary by-election, involving less than 7 percent of the total constituencies in the country.) A young doctor, Nay Winn Aung, had come with two friends from another part of Rangoon just to be there. A staunch supporter of the NLD (though not a member), he told me how he had participated in the government-orchestrated election two years ago -- but only so that he could mark his ballot with a big cross (thus invalidating it) to demonstrate his disregard for the whole process, which he described as a mockery of a real election. He spoke of his longing for a truly open society, and of his hope that the newly elected NLD parliamentarians, despite their small numbers, would be able to build coalitions with disaffected members of the military and the USDP, the pro-regime party. And he spoke of his fear that NLD supporters in some places might express their frustration over voting fraud or violations of election rules with angry demonstrations that could easily get out of hand.

He was right to worry. As the day wore on, we heard reports of apparent dirty tricks by pro-government forces, allegations that had prompted street protests in Mandalay, Burma's second-biggest city, and elsewhere. The NLD leaders, who are sensitive to the risks, seem to have successfully defused them. The 2008 constitution contains a clause allowing the army to reassert its authority in the event of civil disturbances, and the leaders of the pro-democracy movement know that they will have to tread carefully if they don't want to provoke the hardliners into reasserting control.

Not long after I spoke with the politically savvy doctor, I was sitting on the floor in one of the NLD offices on the block, chatting with a young activist who had emerged from jail as part of the big release of political prisoners in mid-January. (We were sitting on the floor because the office has no furniture, an indication of the party's relative poverty.) He pointed out to me that those freed at the time were not actually granted clemency; the charges against all the ex-prisoners remain in force, and anyone who is judged by the government to have violated the terms of this de facto probation can be instantly re-arrested. Like everyone else, he was excited about the election. (The polls closed as we talked.) But he was also keen to point out that Burma is still a long way from any sort of real democracy.

He was about to continue, but right then a deafening cheer rose up from the street. Everyone jumped to their feet and rushed downstairs. The crowds were swelling now, blocking the thoroughfare. No one seemed to mind the intense, steamy heat. Hundreds of people massed in front of the local polling station, just across the street from the chalk scoreboard. Then came another big cheer, accompanied by frantic applause. No one seemed to know what was going on at first, but soon we figured it out: The election officials in the polling place had started counting the votes, and each time they opened a new box of ballot papers the onlookers outside expressed their enthusiastic approval. In a place like Burma, having a chance to vote for the candidate of your choice is not something to be taken lightly.

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Democracy Lab

Burma: Now for the hard part

RANGOON -- The story here in Burma right now is all about opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. The polls just closed a few hours ago, but the NLD is already claiming a landslide victory -- making this a potentially transformative moment for the long-suffering country. So it's quite understandable that most journalists (including me) have been focusing on the Lady and her team.

Yet it is vitally important to keep the big picture in sight. As Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues know all too well, they are about to enter a parliament that has been carefully designed to prevent people like them from gaining much influence. According to the 2008 constitution that provided the ground rules for Burma's last general election two years ago, a full quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the armed forces. But an even larger number of seats are held by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), created by the military regime in 1993 as a counterweight to the pro-democracy movement. If Aung San Suu Kyi and her friends really want to amend the present constitution before the next election rolls around in 2015, as they have said they plan to do, they will have to find allies within these two groups.

Opinions about the current state of the USDP are divided. The optimists say that many of its members realize that the jig is up, and that they must essentially reform or die. In this reading, the onset of real political competition will provide an incentive for the party's more pragmatic members to seek deals with the vastly more popular NLD. Speculating about when the first pro-regime MPs will defect to the NLD has become something of a political parlor game in Rangoon these days.

The skeptics don't buy it. In their view, the pro-government party actually hasn't changed all that much, and its members have little reason to switch sides, since they know that voters aren't necessarily prepared to reward opportunistic conversions to the democratic cause when there are so many genuine democrats around already. USDP parliamentarians, in short, know which side their bread is buttered on. They will stick with the government precisely in order to preserve the perks that come from proximity to the generals and ex-generals who continue to hold all the key positions in the government bureaucracy and the economy.

While I'm inclined to side with the optimists, my own encounters with the USDP haven't exactly been encouraging. Having obtained an interview with U Htay Oo, the USDP's general secretary, my interpreter and I turned up at the party's HQ in downtown Rangoon. It's a high-rise building in a mostly low-rise city, and its huge marble lobby and echoing corridors are built to convey an imposing sense of proximity to power. We were ushered into a top-floor meeting room with dark wood paneling and heavy leather armchairs -- all of it a far cry from the NLD's head office (a ramshackle house with concrete floors). After welcoming us, a smiling U Htay Oo launched into a 40-minute monologue that smacked of the opening address to a government delegation rather than the start of an interview. The general secretary of the USDP is clearly a man accustomed to doing the talking.

Once I finally had a chance to ask my questions, U Htay Oo took care to express general support for President Thein Sein's cautious reform course while remaining decidedly vague about what this means in practice. He told me that the USDP's parliamentarians are keen to show that they have the best interests of the voters at heart. But when I asked him to name an issue on which the party's MPs have chosen to take the government to task, he demurred. And when it came to the all-important issue of constitutional reform, he showed little indication that the USDP might be prepared for a deal: "The constitution has been in effect for only one year... We need to implement it for a while." None of this seems to bode especially well for the prospects of collaboration with the NLD.

For all this, though, his was still a relatively polished performance. He was careful to avoid all too harsh words for the pro-democracy movement, obviously aware that vilifying the NLD would blight the reformist president's charm offensive to persuade Western countries to lift their long-standing sanctions against Burma. In that respect, my encounter with Lae Lae Aye, a young USDP functionary campaigning for a parliamentary seat in Rangoon, was illuminating. The government knows what's best for people, she told me; the job of ordinary citizens is to obey the laws that it makes. When I asked her about her rivals in the NLD, her distaste was palpable: "There are many opposition people who are rude." But surely, I said, it was their right as citizens to express their own views? "Clever children obey their parent's rules," she explains. "But the child who isn't clever doesn't listen to his parents. And then, as a result, he doesn't like his parents, either." (Guess which role the NLD played in this metaphor.) USDP strategy guidelines posted on the wall of her campaign headquarters included the following point: "Reduce and ultimately eliminate the area of the opposition parties."

It's easy to mock such views. Yet they provide an insight into the mindset of the people who have ruled this country since 1962, and who still hold firm control over its government, the economy, and the education system. Easing them out, if it happens at all, will be a slow and arduous task entailing plenty of messy and unsatisfying compromises. Today's election is merely the first.

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