A Landmark Election Unfolds in Burma and the Opposition Starts Celebrating Victory

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is surrounded by media as she visits polling stations in her constituency as Burmese vote in the parliamentary elections on April 1, in Kaw Hmu, Burma.

The line of disappointed Burmese wandered down the dirt road from the polling station to the betel-nut shack. Perhaps a hit of the addictive chew would soothe their nerves. On April 1, Burmese went to the voting booths for just the third time in more than half a century. At stake were fewer than 50 parliamentary seats being contested out of 664 total. But this small by-election was the first time that the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s beloved opposition force, was participating in the political process since 1990 polls, which the party won by a landslide only to have the military regime ignore the people’s will. With reforms blossoming across the country after a hybrid civilian-military government took office last year, ordinary Burmese were reveling in the chance to vote for the party led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But in the 67th Quarter of Dagon Seikkan township—a muddy patch of thatch huts, fallow rice paddies and pigs wallowing in stagnant water—many would-be voters said they were foiled in their attempt to cast ballots for the NLD. Within a couple-hour period, at least 10 Burmese emerged from the thatch-hut polling station clutching their ID cards and saying that their names were not on the vote-registration list. Strangely, many of them had been able to vote without incident back in 2010. Then, the military junta held what were considered widely rigged elections that brought the new quasi-civilian government, dominated by the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to power.

(MORE: Burma Holds Out the Promise of Reform, But Change Will Take Time)

Other 67 Quarter residents said they were allowed to vote but when they got their ballot and tried to tick the box for the NLD—seven candidates may have been running but support seemed overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi’s party—there was a waxy, slippery substance covering only the NLD’s box. That made trying to mark the ballot difficult. To compensate, some ticked the box twice, while others tried to push their pens down with such force that the paper tore, immediately invalidating their votes.

In fact, among the dozen or so people gathered in the shade of the betel-nut and refreshment shack, only one man said he had been able to successfully cast his vote in the NLD’s favor. The rest had either been rejected from voting or had contended with the waxy ballots. One Dagon Seikkan election official dismissed the notion of waxy ballots. “I’ve heard about this,” he said, “but it’s pure propaganda.” In other parts of Rangoon Division, which includes Dagon Seikkan, voting seemed relatively orderly, with the occasional complaint about names missing from voter registration lists.

Further south in Kawhmu, the Irrawaddy Delta township where Suu Kyi herself is running, reports of waxy ballots proliferated. But unofficial results released by the NLD shortly after the polls closed indicated that woman known in Burma simply as “the Lady” had already won her seat by a landslide. A few polling stations were reportedly closed in Shan state and Sagaing division. Elsewhere in Dagon Seikkan, one woman complained that the ballot she had filled out was missing a signature from a local election official. Upon hearing that ballots lacking signatures would be invalidated, she, like dozens of others in the area, rushed back to the polling station at the local No. 2 high school. But election officials told her that she couldn’t vote twice so there was nothing she could do. “I’m sure if there’s no cheating, Mother Suu’s party will win by a big margin here,” said 67 quarter resident Than Than. “But with all these strange things happening, I’m not sure what the result will be.”

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In a rather last-minute decision, international election observers were invited to monitor the polls. At a briefing by the Foreign Ministry for the assembled foreign observers, a giant sign dubbed the event an election-monitoring “tour,” hinting at the possibility of staged interactions. Late in the morning of April 1, foreign-election observers traveling around commercial capital Rangoon told TIME that they were not entirely satisfied with what they had seen. “You would think they would cheat more sophisticatedly,” said one, who declined to be named because the observer did not have permission to speak to the press.

Much is riding on these by-elections, which the country’s new hybrid military-civilian government promises are just one more sign of its commitment to reform. Many in Burma—and in the West—expect that if the polling process is free and fair, the U.S. and other countries will lift punishing economic sanctions imposed because of the regime’s poor human-rights record. The trade restrictions took the Burmese military government to task for forced labor, mass rape of ethnic minority women and an overall abdication of any governmental duty that left one of Asia’s richest countries in the 1960s vying for regional last-place with Afghanistan and North Korea. But Western sanctions also kept the country isolated and prone to less ethical investment, particularly from China, which has gained a reputation in Burma for paying low wages and compromising the environment.

In March, Burma’s President Thein Sein, who has surprised nearly everyone with his commitment to reform despite his military pedigree, urged the country to commit itself to a free and fair election. The campaign season, despite minor irregularities, has been marked by open adulation for Suu Kyi, whose face peers out from posters that a year ago could have landed people caught with them in jail.

(MORE: Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s First Lady of Freedom)

Yet in front of the 67th Quarter polling station, where sunglasses-wearing Special Branch officers tried to loiter not too conspicuously, a group of farmers rested in the shade after their democratic experiment. “We were asked to vote,” they volunteered in unison. Who were they told to choose? “We’re not allowed to say,” said Myint Myint Thein, through betel-stained teeth. Earlier in the day, said other villagers, a truck filled with strangers descended on the polling booth. Even as real residents were turned away, the people in the truck trooped into the thatch shack and were allowed to vote. Then they crowded back in the vehicle and drove off.

Expectations are still high, however, that the NLD will prevail in the by-elections. Official results are supposed to be released within a week, although unofficial outcomes began trickling out late in the afternoon of April 1. An hour after the polling stations closed at four p.m., rumors began circulating of other NLD candidate victories even in the new capital Naypyidaw, which the junta built at great expense a few years ago to the horror of ordinary Burmese. If the NLD doesn’t win big, then an outraged populace could turn against a government that has, so far, won accolades for its incipient reforms. But a total washout for the USDP would be hugely embarrassing for the military and could compel hardliners within the administration to halt reforms. Fifty-fifty has been the prediction from Burmese political pundits, ranging from rice farmers to presidential advisors, of how the seats will fall between the NLD and the USDP. The fate of a mere 45 or so seats has never meant so much.

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