Myanmar elections: Notes from the campaign trail

I recently had the opportunity to accompany my parents, U Aung Nyein and Daw Than Than Nu — candidates for the Democratic Party (Myanmar) — on their campaign activities in the cities of Mandalay and Yangon. It was a decidedly low-budget affair, and involved a large pickup truck loaded with a handful of young volunteers, and adorned with posters and the party flag. The truck would stop frequently, and the candidates and volunteers would distribute pamphlets and manifestos, and chat with potential voters. I had already heard positive reports of the public’s reactions from my parents, but what I saw in those three days surpassed my own expectations.

The vast majority of people in these constituencies, which cover both urban and rural districts, were either ready to vote, or were seriously willing to consider voting. When a candidate stopped in front of a house and spoke with its occupants, people from neighbouring houses would gather around to listen, and ask questions – these ranged in content from practical issues (“Where’s the nearest polling station?”) to questions of affiliation (“Are you associated with the NLD?”) to policy matters (“What will you do about political prisoners?”). People voluntarily approached candidates as they passed by, and in quite a few cases, stated that they had already decided to vote for their party, because they saw it as being the ‘cleanest’ on offer. Many asked for extra pamphlets, to take back to their friends and neighbours, or chased after candidates or volunteers, because they had not yet received a pamphlet.

Everywhere we went, people were open, approachable and willing to help by, for instance, pointing out the best way to reach clusters of houses situated away from major roads. Candidates were frequently invited into people’s houses for tea, and were told how wonderful it was that they were taking some action to try and change things. Buddhist monks, who were barred from voting, also assured the candidates that they were doing the right thing. It was particularly heartening to see that voters who received pamphlets, in almost all cases, carefully read the material detailing the candidates’ backgrounds and the party’s policy stance.

Picture 1: An election campaign truck and volunteer

Picture 2: Women in a Burmese village reading election pamphlets

These are not the words and actions of a populace that considered the elections to be a waste of time, and that regarded all participating candidates as stooges of the military regime. The recent election result cannot possibly reflect the wishes of Burmese voters, but that is a matter separate from the issue of boycotting the polls. The Burmese people are well aware of the track record of the government, and are smart enough to know that the recent elections would have been neither free nor fair. They were also under no illusion that they would wake up to the dawning of democracy on 8 November 2010. Nevertheless, people from all walks of life — the urban and rural poor, city businessmen, university students — spoke words of encouragement to my parents as they toured their constituencies, because they saw the elections as a small window of opportunity to a better future.

“If you’re poor and you’re sick, you just wait to die”, is what many citizens will tell you, while also voicing grave concerns for the future well-being of their children. It is this bleak reality that gave many candidates the conviction that participating in the elections was better than doing nothing until a fully-fledged democracy miraculously appears. I believe that the fate of a nation of 50 million is far too important to rest on the opinion of a single person, whether that person be a military general, or an internationally-recognised political prisoner. There is nothing surprising or undesirable about the fact that several voices — often in harmony, in that democracy is a common goal — are now offering to represent different sections of the Burmese population.

The student leaders who played a pivotal role in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising made great sacrifices to try and achieve a better future for the people of Burma. Many are still paying a heavy price for their vision. The pro-democracy forces participating in the 2010 elections also made a different kind of sacrifice: they staked everything they had, even their credibility in the eyes of their own people, to pursue an equally noble vision. For them, taking a chance, even if it failed to amount to anything, was preferable to inaction, for it is apathy and inaction that will ultimately serve to legitimise continued military rule.

Aung Si is the grandson of U Nu, Burma’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister. He currently resides in Canberra.