Voters in Myanmar stood for hours on dusty city streets and dirt lanes and stood out en masse in Sunday elections expected to leave the ruling party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the largest force in the country’s parliament.
The high turnout in only the second truly competitive elections the country has held in decades underscored the voters’ commitment to the nascent democracy in Myanmar, overshadowed by a military dictatorship that ruled for 50 years.
Halfway around the world from where Americans were judging the state of their own democracy, the elections in Myanmar served as a crucial referendum on a political transition that is neither orderly nor ordained.
“I had to vote today because my vote will count for the future of our country,” said U Sithu Aung, a physical therapist who waited two hours in the sun to cast his vote in Mandalay City. “I know there is a risk of Covid, but voting is more important than being infected with a virus.”
The elections gave voice to a generation of young, independent candidates and ethnic minority politicians in a country that has long been dominated by two political actors: the National League for Democracy, the leading political party and the military, which still stands under much of the command Government.
102 parties took part in the elections on Sunday. Many were ethnic parties and others came from parties formed by those who were once close to the country’s civil leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, only to have broken with her.
Critics say that the ruling party, although formed in democratic opposition to the military, is now repeating some of the sins of its former enemy. The government of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 15 years at the behest of the military generals, has arrested numerous students, artists and peasants for expressing their political views.
The electoral commission under the rule of the ruling party has censored members of the opposition party and disenfranchised many people who do not belong to the ethnic Bamar majority.
“Leaving people out is not a new thing in Myanmar, unfortunately,” said U Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who runs a policy think tank in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital. “The majority were forced to declare this to be Buddhist karma.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics also accuse the National League for Democracy of having turned into a personality cult around a 75-year-old leader with authoritative command over her party. Overseas, the reputation of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, was marred by her defense of the military in her ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims.
“The ruling party is very closely associated with Aung San Suu Kyi, but we don’t want heroism,” said Ma Ei Thinzar Maung, a 26-year-old ethnic minority activist who ran for a seat in parliament in Yangon. “During this time of democracy, the state of democracy in Myanmar has declined. We had hoped it would continue. “
Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung, who was imprisoned for her student activism, lost to a ruling party candidate on Sunday.
After the military took power in 1962, elections were held in 1990. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly, but the military ignored the results and prevented the formation of a civilian government. Elections were held again in 2010 to suppress the opposition that boycotted the competition.
When fairer elections were finally held in 2015, the National League for Democracy crushed the militarily allied Party for Union Solidarity and Development. With these elections, the era of power-sharing between a civilian government and the military began.
Like the African National Congress in South Africa, the National League for Democracy remains the country’s pre-eminent political force. The broad loyalty of the electorate is shaped by the founders’ long years of political imprisonment.
But the party wasn’t supposed to win on Sunday with the landslide it had five years ago. At that time it was enough to have the cloak of the opposition party to lead the candidates to victory.
This time the shortcomings of the National League of Democracy as a ruling party were discussed. The pandemic hit Myanmar late, but it is now sweeping through a country with one of the worst health systems in the world. Despite the lifting of international human rights sanctions, Myanmar never received an expected blessing for foreign investment. The coronavirus has brought the economy further to its knees.
And for all the electoral excitement recorded on Sunday More than 1.5 million people out of 37 million voters were excluded from the polls. Last month the Election Commission canceled votes for many ethnic minorities living in conflict areas, citing security concerns. Legal experts pointed out that the vote should have been put on hold and not immediately canceled, and wondered if disenfranchisement was a deliberate tactic of the ruling party.
“In some ethnic areas, people are very hostile to the NLD and instead support ethnic parties,” said Andrew Ngun Cung Lian, a constitutional scholar who also acted as negotiator for ethnic peace. “It seems like the NLD used the fighting to silence ethnic people.”
In addition to those whose votes were canceled last month, about a million Rohingya Muslims, many of whom were driven out of the country by ethnic cleansing campaigns, were also unable to cast ballots.
Ethnic minorities make up around a third of Myanmar’s population and suffer disproportionately from persecution by the military: gang rape, forced labor and village burnings, including crimes that have been documented by human rights groups.
In the state of Mon in southeast Myanmar, Mi Yin Sa Ning said she selected an ethnic Mon party over against the National League for Democracy. Like many in the state, she was furious when the government named a bridge there after Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, an independence icon considered by some in Mon to be a subjugator.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi always says the words” federal democratic country, “but their actions only lead to dictatorship,” said Ms. Yin Sa Ning. “Both they and the military work to gain power, not for the citizens.”
The Mon Union Party appeared to have infiltrated the National League for Democracy’s dominance in Mon State, according to preliminary results released late Sunday night.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s treatment of ethnic minorities, particularly her refusal to condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, has led international governments to withdraw their awards and keys to their cities. Her reputation as a human rights icon was shaken last year when she led her country’s defense against genocide at the International Court of Justice.
But at home, where extremist monks ignite sectarian flames, some in the Buddhist heartland see them instead as farmers of oil-rich sheikhs. They fear that an Islamic wave will flood the Buddhist majority in Myanmar from Afghanistan to Indonesia as it did centuries ago, even though only about 5 percent of the country is Muslim.
Perhaps to counter these fears, the National League for Democracy did not nominate any Muslim candidates in 2015. This time there were only two. (Early Monday morning one of them had won his race against Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung.)
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is not protecting the country,” said U Raja, a monk who is part of a nationalist Buddhist movement. “They only build their power to show off and have no ability to run the country.”
Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok and Saw Nang from Yangon, Myanmar.