Cyclones are more common in Myanmar than elections. However, next week, on November the 8th, Myanmar will be holding its first free-and-fair elections– fingers crossed – in a generation. The election is not only a choice for President or for Members of Parliament. It is the peoples’ referendum on how they feel about the democratic transition that began to unfold five years ago.
The last time “elections” took place, I was ineligible to vote. I was under eighteen years of age. But it was not such a loss for me not to have voted then, since my vote would have been insignificant in relation to the “sweeping majority” of the now-ruling Union Solidary and Development Party (USDP). This election, however, is different. The opposition has been campaigning, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been adamantly rallying citizens to exercise their right to vote – to fulfill their duty of civility. Her calls have not left me untouched.
Compared to last elections, the circumstances I am in are different: I’m in not in Yangon, but studying at Oxford. Regardless of where in the world I am, it is important, I believe, to fulfill my duty. Citizens living abroad are able to vote in Embassies around the world in what is known as a “pre-registered vote.” The process has been fairly simple and unimpeded for me, but I have heard that many others in Singapore and the United States have not had the privilege of a simple and easy process. In many cases, they weren’t allow to vote either because the Embassy closed or their ballot papers did not arrive. Elections in other countries don’t go as normal as they should, but in Myanmar elections are paranormal.
The process for being able to vote in London started a few weeks before I arrived. I had to submit Form-15 which is a simple document that requires me to fill in my details, and request that I be put on the pre-registered voters list in London. I had to submit it before September 28th. The official date for voting in London was only on the 18th of October. However, it was only about five days before voting that the Embassy released the names of the people who were allowed to vote there. I found my name quickly, but I imagine for those who didn’t find their names but submitted Form-15, it must have been a hassle calling the Embassy, and overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles to get your right to vote recognized.
The actually process of voting was impressively simple. I arrived an hour before the Embassy closed, so there was no line at all. When I arrived, there was a man at reception who asked about my home township to see if my ballots for that township had arrived. After checking my passport, and filling out my details on a spreadsheet, I was escorted upstairs to the actual voting room. I was given a slip from downstairs of which township I am in, which I handed to a person in the voting room. I presented this to an official sitting in the room, and he produced three ballot papers and three envelopes. Three votes had to be casted: one for the lower house (Pyithu Hluttaw), one for the upper house (Amyothar Hluttaw), and one for the divisional parliament (in my case, Yangon Division’s Parliament). He explained the instructions very carefully. Mainly, it was important that I tick my votes clearly in the boxes, that I put the voting slips into the envelopes and glue it, and that I put the correct each envelope into the corresponding boxes for lower, upper, and divisional parliament.
Within 15 minutes of my arrival to the Embassy, the whole process was done. And at that moment, I thought: what drives humans around the world to sacrifice their lives for such a simple process as voting? It is not for the procedure of voting that the people of Myanmar have fought for, but for the democratic principles behind it: principles of liberty, equality, and justice. These words are floated around so much in political speech, that politicians, especially those in the West, have inflated their value. But for citizens in Myanmar and around the world, these principles are still calls for battle. Many lives have been lost in Myanmar: lives that were lost so that people like myself and millions others in the country right now can exercise their right to vote. Abraham Lincoln had much to say about this in his famous Gettysburg Address: “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract … It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” The work – that is to have a genuine liberal democracy in Myanmar – is indeed unfinished. This is merely the first of many steps, but as I take part in this first step, I am immensely thankful to the many lives lost and for those living for the struggle for democracy in this land called Myanmar.