The polls opened across Myanmar on Sunday, after decades of democracy protests and a spluttering reform process that the Burmese hope will finally give them sway over a repressive military elite that took control in 1962.
The army has preserved much of its power through constitutional provisions that reserve the most important cabinet posts for the military. And many from the country’s persecuted minority Muslim population and others displaced by conflict are ineligible to vote. Nevertheless, the historic poll is being touted by foreign governments as the first credible election in half a century.
Competing rallies have barged through towns and villages over the past two months, with screaming music from loudspeakers hitched on to the sides of trucks. Those waving red flags back the long-time democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, while those with green support former general and current president Thein Sein, who came to power after a internationally condemned 2010 election.
Public information cartoons of how people can vote were slapped on walls across the country months ago. Indelible ink pots have been sent out to 46,000 polling stations.
“One of the things that is different this year is that the government has welcomed international observation,” Britain’s ambassador, Andrew Patrick, told theObserver in the former colonial capital of Rangoon, now the country’s largest city and renamed Yangon. “We have 25 embassy teams around the country.”
Sein has pushed through reforms, releasing political prisoners, allowing a relatively independent press to thrive and opening the long-isolated economy to foreign investment after sanctions were lifted.
But critics of the former junta and their handpicked civilian government say that, while the economy has opened up, the rewards have not been shared and political freedoms are few.
Most people interviewed by the Observer in Yangonin the run-up to the polls were unwilling to talk about politics openly, suggesting they are still fearful of speaking out against the regime.
Um Myint Thein, a 60-year-old who runs a family business selling monks’ robes, said: “The change in Myanmar is moving faster and everyone expects this election to be the best so far.” Asked who he wanted to win, he laughed and said “that’s politics”.
Khine Thay, 35, a former secondary school teacher who set up a newspaper stand in Yangon four years ago, said she’s voting for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. Thay has more than two dozen papers and magazines on a wooden stand, shaded by a plastic tarp on the side of the road.
“All that’s changed since the reforms started has been the new buildings and the new roads,” she said, cooling herself with a hand fan and sitting on a plastic stool. “I believe that the NLD can make Myanmar free.”
However, the fact that the woman is selling newspapers showing Aung San Suu Kyi’s face and many that include criticism of the authorities is a giant leap from pre-2010 Myanmar.
Her bestselling weekly is The Sun Rays, whose front page shows Aung San Suu Kyi’s face next to a photograph of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. “Who will be the next president?” the headline reads.
Under the 2008 military-drafted constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi can never be president. Burmese with foreign children are barred from the country’s top post and her two sons hold British citizenship.
The 70-year-old politician who has spent years under house arrest dismissed the constitution as “silly” last week and said she would be “above the president” if her party triumphs.
That will be hard. A quarter of all seats in parliament are reserved for the army , which also has an effective veto on constitutional change. The interior and home ministry portfolios are also reserved for men in uniform. The army also picks one of the three presidential candidates who will be appointed by parliament next year.
Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author, told the Observer that, even if there is an overwhelming NLD victory, the generals have safeguarded themselves. “They have crafted the constitution that includes a minimum amount of control that is acceptable to them,” he said.