Myanmar voters yearn for change as poll looms


COM, election observation team during a press conference in Yangon on October 2, 2015. Photo: Hein Ko Soe/Mizzima

When hundreds of election observers fan out across Myanmar for Sunday's landmark poll, their boss Ko Sai will be relishing a very personal milestone -- his first chance to vote in a ballot that could reshape the political landscape after decades of military dominance.

Ko Sai, whose full name is Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint, is in charge of a network of 2,000 domestic observers monitoring the election, which pits Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition against the army-backed ruling party.

But as with many people of his generation, the 38-year-old has never marked a ballot paper.

"I haven't had the experience inside a polling station properly yet. It is crazy," he told AFP in the bustling Yangon command centre for his People's Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE).

He was too young to vote in 1990, when Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a nationwide vote by a landslide.

The generals ignored that result, embarking on a wave of repression that saw thousands of critics locked up and cast a shadow over a generation.

The next election was held in 2010, yet despite the 20-year wait Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint opted not to vote in polls boycotted by the NLD and seen as unfair.

Those flawed polls ushered in the current quasi-civilian government that has set the country on the path to reform. 

With a history of disenfranchisement, he believes Sunday's vote will be a game-changer for Myanmar's long-repressed people, explaining his belief that the "experience is much more valuable than the outcome".

"The election result might not bring the country democracy, but I think having the opportunity to be involved, that empowers the people," he said. 

- 'Never afraid' -As Election Day edges nearer, anticipation and anxiety is building at the NLD's bustling headquarters in downtown Yangon.

Myint Myint San watches the frantic preparations with the calm of someone who has lived through Myanmar's treacherous politics. 

The 70-year-old was born five days before Suu Kyi and has supported Myanmar's most famous activist since mass uprisings against military rule in 1988 that were brutally crushed by the army. 

"We were under such pressure at that time," she told AFP, wearing a traditional dress in the vibrant red of the NLD.

Arrested in 2002 for supporting Suu Kyi, she spent four months in jail, largely in Yangon's notorious Insein prison. 

"There were no human rights. We barely even ate and the curry they gave us smelled like cockroach droppings," she said.

But the grandmother said she was "never afraid because I did nothing wrong."

In her eyes, Suu Kyi, who was unable to see her children or dying husband during 15 years of house arrest under the junta, is a "hero" for her personal sacrifice.

Sunday's poll is a key shot at changing the system and Myint Myint San is confident the electorate will seize the moment after years of struggle and hardship.

"I don't want this to happen to the next generation," she said. 

- Economy rules -Nearly half a century under military rule drove Myanmar -- once the rice bowl of Asia -- into economic ruin.

Reforms since the end of outright military rule in 2011 have delivered a shot-in-the arm for the economy and enticed billions of dollars of foreign investment to the frontier market of 51 million.

But life expectancy remains among the lowest in the region and 37 percent of the population still live in poverty according to the World Bank.

"Whichever party wins, they need to solve the problems of ordinary people," said Aung Chit Mhuu a trishaw rider whose battered vehicle sports the lion insignia of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Hundreds of thousands will not get the chance to have their say on Sunday.

Zin Mar Oo, 23, supports her family in rural central Magway division by hauling concrete on Yangon construction sites for less than $4 a day. 

She missed the deadline to register in Yangon and the cost of travelling home for the vote is beyond her means. 

But she is not apathetic.

"I want Aung San Suu Kyi to win. I want this economic system to change," she told AFP.

But she says the people will have to be patient.

"The changes won't come right away. We have to wait."

© AFP

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