YANGON • Factory manager Shein Win and his wife, Ms Khin Myat Maw, arrived holding hands to cast their votes in Yangon in Myanmar's first free elections in a quarter-century. Now 46, they took part in a 1988 pro-democracy protest that brought Ms Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence.
"We've been waiting for this day for a long time," said Ms 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 Myanmar's commercial capital.
Emotions ran high among the roughly 30 million people who went to the polls yesterday, with awe at the milestone their country had reached and a quiet 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 neighbourhood of Myanmar's city of Mandalay, Ms Myint Myint, 95, was carried in a plastic chair by three men along a dirt path and past a line of voters to the local polling station. "A vote is a vote," said her granddaughter, Ms Phyo Kyaw. "Come on, this is our responsibility."
But there were doubts and anxieties too, as many voters recalled the 1990 elections, when a landslide victory for Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) was brushed aside by the country's military rulers.
Dr Khin May Oo, a 73-year-old who voted in Yangon, said the elections might have brought Myanmar to a turning point, but referred nervously to 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 yesterday that the outcome of the vote would be respected, even if - as is widely expected - Ms Suu Kyi's NLD emerges as the winner. Indeed, at a military base in the capital, Naypyitaw, Captain Wai Yan Aung said that 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.
A damper on the celebrations was the cancellation of voting in areas of the country affected by ethnic violence, which activists estimate has cut four million people out of the electoral process. There was also indignation about voter lists riddled with errors.
Mr Linn Htet Aung, 25, who works for an environment non-governmental organisation 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.
"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."
Union Election Commission deputy director Thant Zin Aung said early indications were that "around 80 per cent" of voters had turned out to cast their ballots.