RANGOON — It was a remarkable day in Burma’s modern history. Millions of Burmese people lined up patiently, many from before dawn, to have their say in choosing the new leadership of the country. As the results soon became clear, so too did the message to the old regime: enough is enough.
But the road to political transition may prove bumpy. The next step is for the government and military to honor the election outcome and allow a genuine democratic transition to take place.
This is a victory for the people and testament to their resilience during what has been a long and painful journey for so many. It culminated Sunday in a vote against the military-backed party and its enablers, associated with so much suffering, corruption and mismanagement for decades.
On November 8, I woke up at 3:30 am and went to a polling station in Rangoon where Aung San Suu Kyi would appear later that morning to cast a vote. Restless journalists and election observers arrived before the first people cast votes at 6 am.
Scores of voters all lined up quietly and orderly, with dignified smiles. Decoding the message on their faces was not too difficult: it is time for sweet revenge!
It was a look common to many; a quiet determination mingled with hope. These voters were ready, with their own hands, to turn a new page in the country’s history.
Before coming to polling stations, many Burmese put on their smartest looking clothes, some women with thanaka on their faces. I asked a lady in her 50s, who hailed from a wealthy family, about her hopes for polling day.
“We want to have a say in the future,” she replied. “We want to end the days living under a government we think is just an extension of the repressive regime. They were corrupt, arrogant, selfish, incompetent and not even elected by the people.”
I could hardly have expected a more direct and fearless answer.
One well-known tycoon who is still on the US sanctions list told me, “I voted for the NLD!” I suspect many cronies linked to the former military regime quietly support the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and are rolling up their sleeves to offer economic advice to a new NLD-led government.
From house maids to house owners, trishaw drivers to businessman, the overwhelming majority of those lined up at polling stations in the commercial capital on Sunday wanted to see change in the country. They voted with hope, not out of fear.
In Golden Valley, where many wealthy citizens live, I saw youths, senior citizens, former government officials and some in wheelchairs all arrive at polling stations. When Suu Kyi appeared, the excitement levels went up and many shouted aung pyi, or victory!
In spite of some fears of violence on election day, voting throughout the country was conducted peacefully.
What I didn’t notice on Sunday was any discernable presence of monks near ballot stations. While monks are not permitted to vote, some had feared those associated with the Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha may seek to influence voters.
But the movement has been divided since some monks criticized Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition party and expressed their support for Thein Sein.
On election night, colleagues invited me to join quiet celebrations as the results continued to trickle in throughout the evening.
Many Burmese held private parties at homes, hotels or restaurants and celebrated the people’s victory. In small towns on the outskirts of Rangoon, under dim lights, many Burmese spoke about who they voted for, recounting their experience at the polling station as if they’d won a battle.
At a dinner table in Rangoon, some shared the story of a 94-year-old man who fell gravely ill just prior to the election and was taken to a private hospital. He was unconscious and rushed to intensive care. Luckily, he regained consciousness and, as soon as he opened his eyes, he told relatives he still wanted to vote. His family rushed to organize it and he voted for the NLD.
I learned that prior to Sunday, many Burmese had voluntarily helped each other on how to vote correctly since they were worried about potential electoral irregularities.
I asked a senior colleague, a veteran journalist in Rangoon, why she thought so many people voted for the NLD. “They wanted a way out of this hell,” she told me. “So they chose her.”
I nodded. This was the people’s desire.