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Millions vote in Myanmar’s first free election since 1990

May Thinzar Cho, 22, shows off her ink-stained finger after voting for the first time Sunday in Pandaing, a village in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar. The ink is intended to prevent repeat voting.
May Thinzar Cho, 22, shows off her ink-stained finger after voting for the first time Sunday in Pandaing, a village in the Irrawaddy Delta region of Myanmar. The ink is intended to prevent repeat voting. McClatchy

Ever since this country’s military nullified the result of the 1990 general election and put the winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest, millions in Myanmar have waited for the day when they could put Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in power.

That day may have arrived. Voters by the millions on Sunday flocked to polling stations, by foot, bus, taxi and bicycle in the cities, and in long tail boats in the vast labyrinth of channels known as the Irrawaddy Delta.

Enthusiasm was high for the country’s first contested general election in a quarter century.

“I am very excited,” said 22-year-old May Thinzar Cho, a resident of Pandaing Village who was voting for the first time. “This is very important day for my country. I want to help bring about change.”

Final results of the election may not be known for several days, and the military could thwart the outcome. Still, there was a palpable sense Sunday that the polling was being carried out in a credible manner and would be honored by the current government.

Under Myanmar’s constitution, written by the former military junta, Aung San Suu Kyi can’t be chosen president, since her two sons hold British passports.

“In the last election (2010), there was some manipulation,” said Tin Moe Khing, 30, a resident of Toe Nayi village, an Irrawaddy town that is home to about 2,000 people. “This time we hope it will be a fair vote.”

Myanmar’s path to democracy has been ill-starred since the man considered the nation’s founder, Aung San, was assassinated six months before the British granted what was then known as Burma its independence in 1948. The opportunity to overturn the 1990 arrest of his daughter, now known as “Mother Suu,” was a major factor for many of Sunday’s voters.

Daw Hywe Yi, a tailor in Toe Nayi, said her neighbors support Aung San Suu Kyi because she visited the village back in 1989, and also because she is Aung San’s daughter.

“Back in 2010, we voted for the lion,” said Daw Htwe Yi, referring to the symbol of the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. “But not much has changed since 2010, so this year we are voting for the star and peacock” – the symbol of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Toe Nayi village sits some 30 miles west of the former Burmese capital of Rangoon, now called Yangon. The village is effectively an island, sitting on a horseshoe of the Yangon River. A small motorcycle track connects this village to the outside world, but nearly all basic provisions must be brought in by boat.

People are really enthusiastic to vote, and I am happy to see that.

Daw Zar Zar Than, local elections official.

The villagers are poor, many living in thatched stilt houses and subsisting on fishing and farming. They have no household electricity, other than the car batteries that run their television sets. Recently, villagers said, the USDP helped bring solar panels to many households, allowing them to have electric lights for the first time.

Despite that largesse, few people could be found Sunday who supported “the lion.” Those who voted for the USDP in the 2010 general election said they had done so only because Suu Kyi’s party was not on the ballot, having boycotted it for being rigged.

Turnout was strong in Toe Nayi. Some 670 of 1,100 registered voters cast ballots by noon, and Daw Zar Zar Than, a local elections official and school headmaster, said she expected a surge in the afternoon, when a rise in delta tides would make it easier for people from surrounding villages to boat over and cast ballots.

“People are really enthusiastic to vote, and I am happy to see that,” she said. “They know they have the chance to choose their next leader.”

There’s a possibility those hopes might be dashed. Under Myanmar’s constitution, written by the former military junta, Suu Kyi can’t be chosen as president, since her two sons hold British passports.

And though she has said she will serve “above the president” if the NLD wins, her party would need to get 67 percent of the seats in Parliament to rule outright. If they get less, then the ruling party of President Thein Sein might be able to cobble together a coalition to choose the next president, possibly Thein Sein himself.

For what it’s worth, the star and peacock’s man in Toe Nayi thinks the NLD will triumph, at least in his village. “My expectation is we will win 70 percent,” said U Hla Htoo, who owns the local rice mill and is the NLD village head.

By contrast, the village leader of the USDP, Naing Lin Kyaw, was far less sure of victory, and had little to say when pressed on why his party should stay in power. “The people can vote for whom they want,” he said. “That is a good thing.”

In Yangon, an epicenter of support for Aung San Suu Kyi, lines stretched down a city block Sunday morning as people prepared to cast ballots in the city’s Dagon Township. Some showed up an hour before the polls opened at 6 a.m.

Yin Htwe, who works at a cafe in Yangon’s People’s Park, was bussed over to the polls by her employer, along with dozens of fellow employees. At 8:30, she could be seen standing ramrod straight in line, clutching her purse and smart phone, anxious to cast her ballot.

“I am very happy,” she said. “I finally have a chance to vote!”

McClatchy special correspondent Mai Hla Aye contributed to this report.

Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth

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