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. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images.
By Hannah Beech, April 1, 2012 —
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. . . .
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. . . .