Why do I care so much about Myanmar’s election?
This past February, I spent two weeks traveling in Myanmar. While this doesn’t make me an expert in all things Burmese, something happened on that visit that moved me tremendously. I was seeing a civilization extracting itself from being encased in amber.
The bulk of the two weeks was spent traveling down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Pyay. This was followed by a long bus ride to Yangon. During the time of our trip, large groups of students were marching toward Yangon to protest decisions made by the military government as to what courses could be taught and how open the discussions in those classes could be.
In fact, as we approached Yangon, we passed through a military checkpoint set up to keep the students from making their anticipated rendezvous in Yangon. While we were not delayed in our trip, we could see that that government was not going to let the demonstrations get, from their perspective, “out of hand.”
Prior to our reaching this location, we had spent much of the previous week stopping at small villages and medium sized cities to get a sense of daily life in Myanmar. Much of it was close to primitive, mostly the result of extremely limited electrical power. In the majority of the villages we visited, the primary source of electricity was a car battery, recharged daily from a single solar cell.
Yet, in just about every home in these villages was a picture of a student having graduated from high school, technical college or university. These hard working families had seen the future and made sure the next generation would be educated.
In many of these towns and villages, we also saw at least one facility sponsored by the National League of Democracy (NLD), the political party being led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, which would be contesting a national parliamentary election then nine months hence. No village seemed too small for one these, whether it be a school, a cultural center or a health care facility. With this grass roots level of activity, it has come as no surprise that the NLD has produced such an enormous landslide victory in the recent voting.
Truth be told, one of the primary reasons I traveled to Myanmar so soon after it was opened for Americans was to see it as it was before development inevitably changes it. The experience was both inspiring and hopeful. The greatest hope was seen at many of the small cafes which lined the river where young people, just like seemingly everywhere else on the world, were sitting with their heads angled down to read their smartphone screens.
They could have been from anywhere. Yet, I knew that this bourgeoning growth in technology was relatively new as the price of SIM cards had only just recently been reduced to affordable levels. The change had begun, as it often does, with young people. And the change was unstoppable.
I was also affected by this election because of what it might mean to these wonderful, industrious, intelligent older people I saw. Their hope was visceral. And, their expectations are high. It is a daunting task, both in real terms and in their dreams for their families, that faces The Lady.
We wish her, and especially her people, the very best.