Voters across the former military dictatorship of Myanmar went to the polls Sunday here in a watershed election, the first in 25 years whose outcome wasn’t a foregone conclusion.
The vote is a major test of the democratic reforms that Myanmar’s army began in 2011, launching a dramatic reopening of what had been one of the world’s most isolated nations.
The longtime opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate whose name is synonymous with the struggle for democracy in her Southeast Asian nation, is battling the military-aligned ruling party for control of parliament, which will help choose the next president and should have a say in the shape and speed of further reforms.
In the town of Sittwe in western Rakhine state, dozens lined up at a primary school to cast ballots in a relaxed atmosphere, with a sole, smiling security guard posted at the entrance.
“Whichever party wins, I hope they work to bring all people food, clothes and shelter,” said Hla Hla Aye, a school headmistress who had her elderly mother in tow. “We don’t want any instability.”
Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party was expected to win the most seats and has drawn huge crowds at rallies nationwide. But her supporters remained wary of a rerun of 1990, when her party won an electoral landslide only to see the military toss out the results and place her under house arrest, where she spent most of the next two decades.
Suu Kyi cannot become president due to an army-written constitutional clause that prohibits anyone with close foreign relatives from holding the office -- her late husband was British -- but she has said she would be “above the president” and lead the government if her party wins.
The governing party led by former generals, the Union Solidarity and Democracy Party, says it is to credit for the reforms that have seen the United States and other Western countries lift harsh economic sanctions, drawing more foreign investment and tourists.
“The ruling party is leading the transition to democracy in a good manner,” said Maung Maung, a jail warden in Sittwe. “They should stay in power.”
Obama administration officials have said further U.S. engagement in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, would depend on whether the election was credible. The party leader, President Thein Sein, pledged to respect the result, although the army has a head start in forming the parliament, where one-quarter of seats are reserved for its appointees.
Scores of smaller parties were also fielding candidates, many representing minority groups that have been agitating for greater political power in one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse nations.
More than 30 million people were eligible to cast ballots, but many religious and ethnic minorities were blocked from participating, including in some northern borderlands where voting was canceled because the army had launched operations against ethnic militias.
More than 1 million Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine had their voting rights stripped in what human rights groups call a pattern of worsening religious discrimination in the Buddhist-majority nation. The Myanmar government views the Rohingya as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations, and has confined them to displacement camps managed by foreign aid agencies.
In Sittwe, international election observers said the old Muslim quarter of Aung Mingalar had only 26 registered voters, despite being home to some 4,000 residents.
“I’m not interested in who is going to win because all Muslims have been rejected from this election,” said Mohammad Rafiq, 24, one of 15,000 Rohingya in the Thet Kae Pyin camp on Sittwe’s outskirts.
Although his sympathies traditionally have lain with the NLD, Rafiq lamented that Suu Kyi had kept a virtual silence on the Rohingya issue, apparently in a bid not to antagonize the military or Buddhist hard-liners.
“I’m not putting my hope in anyone,” Rafiq said. “Maybe Aung San Suu Kyi will do something good for us if she wins. But maybe she won’t.”
Preliminary results were expected Monday.