I remember that day. It was 27 May 1990. I was too young to vote, but I spent all day in front of a primary school turned polling station just a few doors down the street. In the afternoon, my father took us to the headquarters of National League for Democracy (NLD). I made sure I wore the NLD uniform, orange pinni jacket my grandmother sewed for me. I remember the euphoria and excitement on the streets. Turnout was high, at 73%. People were jubilant with the prospect of finally seeing a new dawn for democracy. But they were betrayed.
Fast-forward 20 years. Burma held its second election on Sunday. Scenes at Rangoon answered the question of whether or not Burma is a step closer towards democracy this time. Only police and security trucks occupied the streets. A clear sign of who is likely to dominate the political landscape.
To get a sense of voters turn-out, I conducted a mini poll. Out of 57 people I contacted, only 14 voted, ie 24.56%. This would not reflect the reality but could be close given the reports that many stayed at home. Why would voters stay at home at this rare chance to express their voices and opinions?
One explanation seems to be that without NLD, people had little faith in this election. That highlights the belief any democratic process must involve Aung San Suu Kyi and her party. With constitutional clauses clearly stating that the president may confer the executive and judicial powers to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, if required, may also suspend or restrict one or more fundamental rights of citizens in a state of emergency, voters clearly knew what this election had in store for them.
Non-voters sent a clear signal to the government that further unlawful actions against their fellow citizens and, more importantly, ethnic minorities living in the border areas, could not be committed in their names. The new government will not be their elected government and the likely wars against the then ceased-fired opposition groups could not be in the guise of protecting the union and protecting them.
But could the election not create political space? While some might argue oppositions can expand their space in the parliament, however limited initially, this imagined space is merely a window-dressing exercise of the regime. Approval is needed from the 75% of the members of the parliament for any change or amendment to be made in the constitution. But with directly appointed military personnel occupying a quarter of the seats and the rest likely to be won by the government proxy parties (the election results are yet to be announced, but an over 90% win is probable), the chances for change are slim.
So is there any hope for Burma? The role of Aung San Suu Kyi is still relevant in Burma politics, as she can not only rekindle the political movement but is also one of the few people who can unite the nation. With the longest civil war in the world, reconciliation is the sure way to save lives and the government and international community must recognise the role she and ethnic minority leaders could play in bringing peace and democracy to the country.
For Burma, democracy remains elusive and fear is suffocating. Its people still need the support from the international community, including the UK government. Aid should not be withdrawn or reduced. And more educational opportunities should be created for the young people of Burma in order to keep the spirit of democracy alive.
Tharaphi Than, a lector in Burmese (Myanmar) at the School of Oriental and African Studies.