In Myanmar, a festival of democracy tinged with doubt

Supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party cheer outside the party headquarters in Yangon on Nov 8, 2015.
Supporters of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party cheer outside the party headquarters in Yangon on Nov 8, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON, Myanmar (REUTERS) - As polls closed on Myanmar's historic election day, diplomats and other observers said the vote was largely free and fair, with no reports so far of violence or major fraud, just a solid turnout from a lively and informed electorate.

"From the dozens of people we have spoken to since 6am today, everybody feels they have been able to vote for whoever they wanted to in security and safety," said Durudee Sirichanya, an international observer with the Asean Secretariat.

Factory manager Shein Win and his wife Khin Myat Maw arrived holding hands to cast their votes in Yangon in Myanmar's first credible general election in 25 years. Both now 46, they took part in a 1988 democracy protest that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence.

"We've been waiting for this day for a long time," said Khin Myat Maw as they stood in line.

There were cheers from crowds of well-wishers, who held up ink-stained fingers to show they had voted, as Ms Suu Kyi made a whistle-stop tour of polling booths in her constituency near Myanmar's commercial capital.

Roughly 30 million people were eligible to vote on Sunday, many expressing joy at the milestone their country had reached after nearly half a century of dictatorship, and a sense of duty to be part of it. One man who works as an accountant in Singapore said he had flown home just to vote and would head back the next day.

In a downtown neighbourhood of Myanmar's northern city of Mandalay, Myint Myint, 95, was perched on a plastic chair carried by three men along a dirt path and past a snaking line of voters to the local polling station.

"A vote is a vote," her granddaughter Phyo Kyaw explained. "Come on, this is our responsibility."


But there was anxiety, too, as many voters recalled the election of 1990, when a landslide victory for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party was brushed aside by military rulers.

Khin May Oo, a 73-year-old doctor who voted in Yangon, said the election may have brought Myanmar to a turning point, but added nervously of the generals who retain significant power: "I'm not sure whether they will accept the election results." The military's commander-in-chief told reporters on Sunday the outcome of the vote would be respected, even if - as is widely expected - Suu Kyi's NLD emerges as the winner.

Indeed, at a military base in the capital, Naypyitaw, Captain Wai Yan Aung said when his duty shift ended he would change from his uniform into traditional dress and cast his vote. "It's a big and exciting day for our country," he said.

Dampening the celebration was the cancellation of voting in areas of the country affected by ethnic violence, which activists estimate has cut some 4 million people out of the electoral process.

In Mandalay, about 100 people were stopped from voting after election officials discovered they were outsiders who had been added to the voter list by a third party and then bussed in to vote. "It was an attempt at fraud, that's why we didn't let them vote," said Hla Soe of the Union Election Commission.

There was also indignation about voter lists riddled with errors.

Linn Htet Aung, 25, who works for an environment NGO in Yangon, said he was excited about the potential for change in the country but disappointed because his name was omitted from the voter list in a slum area on the outskirts of the city. "I am angry," he said. "All my friends are voting today but I can't. I want to choose the government I like but I can't."

Aung Than Htun, an NLD official monitoring a polling station in the slum, said he had discovered dead people on the voting list. But other than that "it seems fine", he said.

Behind him, small white voting slips sat in piles on a table, with rocks and pebbles serving as paperweights. A sudden gust of wind blew a handful off the table and election officials had to scurry to collect them.