After Big Wins for Opposition, Has Myanmar Turned a Corner?

BY Kira Kay  April 2, 2012 at 1:20 PM EDT

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to a crowd after speaking to journalists and supporters on Monday in Yangon; Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to a crowd after speaking to journalists and supporters on Monday in Yangon; photo by Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

During my week of filming in Myanmar, also known as Burma, the excitement surrounding recent political developments was palpable. Former political prisoners, just released from miserable years of confinement, were surprisingly bold in their comments — both on camera and off — about what legal and governmental reforms would be needed to truly bring democracy to Burma. And thousands of citizens showed no fear of vibrantly demonstrating their support of opposition party leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign for a parliamentary seat: Flags and banners for her party, the National League for Democracy, were everywhere; a cheerful, country-western style song heralding “Mother Suu’s auspicious return to gain true democracy” blared from festooned campaign trucks.

My cameraman, Jason Maloney, remarked that the energy on the streets reminded him of being in Prague in 1989 when a long-repressed society reveled in its chance at free political expression. Having been in Burma once a decade ago, I could see what he meant. Back then, even mentioning Suu Kyi’s name could get you in trouble. This time was markedly different.

Still, I was somewhat surprised to wake to the news Monday that the National League for Democracy has apparently won the great majority of the parliamentary seats they were contesting — Burma’s state television broadcast is reporting a win of 40 seats out of 45 up for grabs, the NLD is saying they’ve actually won 43.

During my time in Burma, expectations for such a win were being carefully managed. It was said that people were still too afraid to vote against the ruling party, especially in constituencies surrounding the country’s capital, with their large populations of civil servants and military retirees. It was also said that the NLD was inexperienced at such large-scale campaigning — give them a few years to build their capabilities, look to next elections in 2015 for a greater chance at a sweep.

News as of a few days ago seemed to bear out these warnings. A candidate I profiled in my reporting, 31-year old Zayar Thaw, running in a township outside the capital, was in fact way behind in the initial tally of absentee ballots.

But one interview I conducted in Zayar Thaw’s constituency gave me some glimpse of what might be to come: a gentleman who approached my team on a dirt road while we were filming “beauty shots” of his picturesque village. Maung Pyone is a retired soldier. He was on his way to groom the horses he now cares for, but saw our camera and wanted to make his feelings known to the world. In 2010 — the last time Burma had elections, but ones that were marred by irregularities and profound government control of the results — he felt too afraid to vote against the ruling military party. But this time, he said, power has been transferred to the people, that he and his fellow citizens were now free to vote as they wished, for a trustworthy and capable leader. He indicated his choice for such leadership would in fact be the NLD. And in fact, it now appears that Zayar Thaw has indeed won his race.

Now comes the hard part: Will Suu Kyi and her opposition colleagues be able to make real change in Burma’s Parliament, given that they will only represent 7 percent of the seats in the massive chamber? Will hardliners who remain in the government see this opposition sweep as damaging to their reputations and respond with rollbacks of recent reforms? Will the opposition itself remain unified? But for today at least, it seems as if Burma has turned a corner. I am thrilled to have been there as a witness to these first steps.

On Monday’s NewsHour broadcast, we’ll have more analysis of Myanmar’s election and what it means for longer-term hopes for democratic reforms. Also, make sure to check out Kira Kay’s earlier reporting on the lead-up to the elections: