Voting for lasting democracy in Myanmar

Myanmar’s general election on November 8 brought a second term for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Election commission results confirm the party won 83% of available seats. About 6,000 people from Myanmar living in Japan turned out to cast early ballots. They have been watching their home country make an unsteady transition toward democracy.

Win Kyaw and his wife Ma Thi Da are long-term NLD supporters, but they have just voted for the first time in their lives. “Voting is the most important thing for a democratic country, and it makes me really happy to be able to cast mine,” says Win Kyaw.

He is one of the so-called “88 Generation,” who participated in pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. Many of his friends were killed by government security forces. He then fled to Japan to escape the ensuing military crackdown.

He has waited for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to take power from the military regime. Now, more than 30 years on, those who fled overseas can finally have their say.

“This single vote is not just for me,” he says. “It is our vote. I voted on behalf of my comrades who fought against the military junta and died.”

Win Kyaw
Win Kyaw works at a Japanese-style izakaya pub in Tokyo.

Despite his enfranchisement, Win Kyaw is worried that the military still has a strong grip over Myanmar. Although he is now able to return to his home country, he has to contend with the unfair rules of the previous regime.

“I need a visa to return,” he says. “It’s a big deal for me, but it’s a very minor concern for the nation itself. So, it will take time to resolve this, and make rules that treat everyone fairly.”

Still some way to go

Win Kyaw doesn’t want young people to experience what he went through. But whenever he talks to students and technical interns from Myanmar, he feels the country’s march to democracy is far from over. Some feel freedom of speech is not completely guaranteed, even though there is a little more political transparency.

Right now, Win Kyaw believes only the NLD can lead the country to a better place -- and ultimately, proper democracy.

“Burma was under military rule for 60 years, and it hasn’t fully democratized yet,” he says. “As long as the military has the right to govern by force, we can never be a democratic country. Democracy means that every citizen has the freedom to follow their own path, toward a brighter future.”

Win Kyaw & Myanmar’s youngsters
Win Kyaw discusses Myanmar’s future with students and technical interns from the country.

One more chance for peace

Others are more critical of the Suu Kyi administration. Members of ethnic minority groups living in Japan are now raising their voices against the government, saying it has broken its promise to bring peace.

Civil war has raged in Myanmar for over 70 years as different ethnic minority groups fight for greater autonomy. Although the Suu Kyi administration has been holding peace talks, there is no end in sight.

Momo is from the Shan ethnic group. She first came to Japan over 20 years ago as an overseas student, and now runs a restaurant in Tokyo with her husband, who is also Shan. The ongoing conflict in Myanmar is a perpetual source of concern. New images from the conflict zone constantly pop up on social media. Refugees have fled to camps around Momo’s hometown in the northern part of Shan State.

“Even with a new administration, nothing has changed,” she says. “They’ve improved the infrastructure in some states, but not ours. And they still haven’t managed to end the civil war or bring peace.”

Momo organized a network to send money and supplies from Japan to help educate refugee children.

Frustrated that many people are still unable to return home, she has decided to give the Suu Kyi administration one more chance.

“We will be watching to see if they can fulfill their promises from now on, and decide what to do if they can’t,” she says. “As a citizen, I wish for equal rights. Of course, that means for people from all ethnic groups, without discrimination.”

Seeking harmony

Since the last election, new political parties have been looking to woo voters from the NLD.

Kyaw Kyaw Soe, another veteran of the 1988 pro-democracy movement, is a supporter of the People’s Party, formed two years ago. He appreciates what the NLD has done for Myanmar, but worries that Aung San Suu Kyi is running a one-woman show.

“I think Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to do things all by herself, and then let everyone else follow her,” he says. “We need a leader who can bring many different voices together in harmony.”

Kyaw Kyaw Soe
Kyaw Kyaw Soe is a supporter of the People’s Party formed two years ago.

Kyaw Kyaw Soe believes that a strong opposition is essential for the future of Myanmar’s democracy. Together with other supporters of the People’s Party, he is actively looking at what can be done. He thinks the main issue is getting supporters of the opposition to cooperate with the next administration. He believes this could transform the current political framework and establish a robust democracy.

Looking forward, Kyaw Kyaw Soe hopes to create space for a diverse range of opinions. “We have the right to choose,” he says. “I think the most important thing is for everyone to understand this, and to move in that direction. Only a democracy provides this type of environment and opportunity.”

The people we met have differing views about their country’s future, but all were united by a common dream. For them, every ballot is a vote for lasting democracy in Myanmar.

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