Understanding the Bigger Picture of Myanmar’s Election

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 30 October 2020

Myanmar swung into full election mode on Thursday, as seniors began casting advance votes across the country. Seeing the elderly, the gray-haired and the infirm venture out of their houses to excitedly cast votes was an uplifting sight.

On Thursday morning, the owner of the house next to mine offered his small courtyard for use as a “polling station” for all the senior citizens on our street. Twenty-nine senior citizens aged 60 and above came out of their houses and cast their votes there. Some needed assistance walking to the station and one elderly fellow made the journey in a wheelchair. The oldest was 92.

I went to observe the makeshift polling station for myself. Seniors responded enthusiastically as soon as the Union Election Commission (UEC) vehicle parked outside and requested through a loudspeaker that they come out and vote. One middle-aged taxi driver who lives in the street volunteered to fetch a couple of elderly neighbors from their houses.

As UEC officials processed the voters, several workers from election monitoring groups stood by, carefully observing the proceedings and taking notes.

The senior citizens completed the voting process with an air of seriousness. After they cast their ballots, their faces bore the satisfied expressions of voters who have fulfilled their civic duty. The taxi driver volunteered the information that almost all of the senior citizens had voted for the National League for Democracy. He spoke with certainty and his assessment seemed credible; he knows just about everyone who lives on the street.

The official 10-day early voting period runs from Oct. 29 to Nov. 7. Normally it is set aside for government officials and civil servants who are engaged in official duties on election day. This year, the UEC arranged for all senior citizens aged 60 or above to vote from home during the period as a health precaution amid the second wave of COVID-19 that is currently gripping the country. President U Win Myint and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were among those casting advance votes in Naypyitaw on Thursday.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi votes in Naypyitaw on Oct. 29, 2020. / State Counsellor Office

In Myanmar, senior voters account for more than 5.1 million of the 38 million eligible voters, according to a preliminary official census conducted in 2019.

Among them is my 66-year-old aunt. After observing the early voting in my street, I went online and came across a comment she posted on Facebook. It reads: “As a citizen, I fulfilled my duty this morning.” Her post was echoed by many other senior voters on Facebook, the social media platform favored by millions of people in Myanmar.

Like her, many senior citizens described in solemn tones the experience of exercising their right to vote. When I talked to her over the phone later, she expressed concern about whether her envelope was properly pasted shut after she put her ballot papers into it. Like my elderly neighbors, she took the process of voting very seriously. “I don’t want my vote to be wasted,” she said.

Sadly, I was told this morning that one of the senior citizens who cast her vote on our street passed away from heart disease last night. The 79-year-old woman and her husband, both ethnic Karen, cast their votes together yesterday. No doubt she would have wanted to know whether the candidate and the party she voted for won. Well… at least she had the comfort of knowing, as she took her last breath, that she had fulfilled her duty as a citizen.

I came away from the day’s events with a sense of the seriousness with which Myanmar people take their political rights—rights they yearned for under the previous military dictatorship. I have always been aware of this, but their attitude and determination on Thursday confirmed my view. It’s a view the majority of Myanmar people have held, in terms not only of elections but also of politics more broadly, for generations.

In a recent column, I wrote, “In each of the elections in the country’s recent history, Myanmar people demonstrated unity, dignity and tenacity in turning out to cast their ballots. We can expect this mental and political determination to be on full display once again when the country votes in the upcoming election on Nov. 8.”

Even before election day arrives, we’ve seen them showing their mettle in this regard.

Why are Myanmar voters so serious about elections?

No doubt they are determined to expand the people’s power by using their votes to reclaim the rights that have been taken from them by force in the past. That is, they are solemnly exercising their democratic right to cement the country’s fledgling democracy. Nothing less and nothing more.

This is something understood not only by most Myanmar people, but also by knowledgeable foreign pundits. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that all people who are otherwise well-informed about Myanmar understand. Not at all. My favorite quote from Albert Einstein is: “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” It’s not unusual to find well-informed people who have knowledge but lack understanding. Nor is it strange to find some Myanmar observers among that group who miss the broader picture.

Elderly people wait to cast their ballots at a mobile polling station in Mandalay on Thursday. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

I sense this keenly when I read the many sensational and one-sided reports, columns and statements published by certain international media and other organizations. Intentionally or unintentionally, many of their views are farfetched and divorced from the reality on the ground.

Starting today, The Irrawaddy will publish a series of short interviews with international observers we are confident can provide a more realistic analysis of the upcoming election.

One of the questions we asked them was: “Many international observers fear that the November election will not be free and fair, citing disenfranchisements and campaign restrictions. However, on the ground, voters and parties alike are still quite enthusiastic and active. What is your view?”

One of our experts on Myanmar, veteran journalist and author Bertil Lintner, answered: “I don’t think so. It is, of course, unfortunate that elections have been suspended in several constituencies, primarily in ethnic areas. But, by and large, people seem to be enthusiastic about voting.”

It’s an accurate assessment—and no election is perfect. Another foreign expert who understands Myanmar well shared this broad view.

Answering the same question, distinguished Professor David Steinberg responded: “These 2020 elections are very important to continue the pattern of elections themselves, for then any future government will have great difficulty in avoiding elections and ruling by decree. Yes, there will be limitations, but overall I expect it will be deemed a reasonable effort.”

That’s what’s happening now in Myanmar—an ongoing effort to cement the country’s fledgling democracy and establish a pattern of elections that lasts in perpetuity.

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