Suddenly, anything seems possible.
That is the sense one gets from speaking to people in Rangoon now. It’s a far cry from the mood in the lead up to the “big” election—the one in November 2010, when Burma went to the polls for the first time in two decades. At that time, the feeling was that everything had been carefully scripted, and would only bring more of the same. But that hasn’t happened. The script has become less predictable—not completely scrapped, perhaps, but somehow more open to a number of possibilities.
One thing no one is betting on at this stage, however, is a Hollywood-style happy ending. The mood is upbeat, but not one of unadulterated optimism. National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s press conference on Friday raised a litany of issues, including complaints that some of her supporters had been physically assaulted, compounding concerns that today’s vote will lack legitimacy.
For the most part, however, few expect the result to be a total sham, unlike the outcomes of the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 general election. People have good reason to feel this time could be different. The past year has brought a series of encouraging changes—not just Suu Kyi’s return to active political life and a loosening of media controls, but also, at least in Rangoon, a sudden surge in energy.
The completion of the Chinese-built 790 MW Yeywa hydropower dam in Mandalay Division in December 2010 has given Burma’s largest city a much-needed boost, not only providing it with a steady supply of electricity, but also restoring some of the dignity it lost when it was replaced by Naypyidaw as the national capital in 2005.
Now largely spared the daily brownouts that were once a humiliating reminder of Burma’s backwardness (but still, according to the latest local reports, facing rationing as the long dry season drags on), Rangoon is brimming with anticipation of better things to come.
Even the worsening traffic seems like a sign of progress. There are more and newer cars on the roads, although most taxis are still decrepit has-beens cast off by drivers in more developed countries decades ago. But even these are driven with a sort of pride. Stubbornly roadworthy long past their prime, many are now adorned with pictures of Suu Kyi and the NLD flag—a fitting tribute, perhaps, to a party that has doggedly stayed on the road to democratic reform for nearly a quarter of a century now.
Suu Kyi seems particularly unstoppable. She is no longer merely “The Lady,” according to one cab driver, but Burma’s “Iron Lady.” Asked if he thought she would share the fate of Margret Thatcher, who became deeply unpopular by the end of her long career in politics, he demurred: perhaps it wasn’t quite the right comparison. Suu Kyi would never lose the support of the Burmese people, he said.
But Suu Kyi is not the NLD’s only female leader with nerves of steel. Phyu Phyu Thin, the party’s candidate in Rangoon’s Mingala Taung Nyunt Township, has also campaigned hard. Nearly three decades younger than Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past week recovering from a grueling campaign schedule, Phyu Phyu Thin slept on Friday night at her office after a late-night concert for her supporters. On the eve of the election, she said she had an even bigger concert to attend.
Looking tired but composed after an interview with Thai and then Japanese media, she told The Irrawaddy she was confident she would win, assuming the election is free and fair.
To that end, her party will be sending two representatives to each of the 68 polling stations in her constituency. She will also personally appear at each one, and said she expected the results to be clear before the end of the day.
Meanwhile, Suu Kyi made her way to Kawhmu, her own constituency, at around 4 o’clock on Saturday afternoon. She spent the night in a rural Irrawaddy Delta township now suddenly on the international media map, eagerly pursued by a phalanx of foreign and local reporters in hired vans.
As voters prepare to cast their ballots, only one thing is clear: nobody knows what the day will bring—and in Burma, that’s a good thing. After years of seeing the outcome of every political turning point as a foregone conclusion, Burmese are ready to embrace a little uncertainty.