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Millions Vote In Myanmar, Easy Victory Expected For Aung San Suu Kyi

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 8/11/2015 Chloe Angyal
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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- With tremendous excitement and hope, millions of citizens voted Sunday in Myanmar's historic general election that will test whether the military's long-standing grip on power can be loosened, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party expected to secure an easy victory.

In a country that was under military rule for almost a half-century, many of the eligible 30 million voters cast ballots for the first time in what was been billed as the nation's freest election ever. It was the first time even for Suu Kyi, the epitome of the democracy movement who had defied the junta for decades.

Wearing her trademark thazin flowers in her hair, a smiling Suu Kyi arrived at the polling station near her lakeside residence, where she was mobbed by hundreds of journalists. She quickly cast her vote and left without speaking to reporters.

Many people lined up in Buddhist temples, schools and government buildings early in the morning to vote, well before a heavy downpour beat down in Yangon an hour before voting ended peacefully in the late afternoon with no reports of major irregularities or violence.

Vote counting began immediately, and hundreds of supporters gathered under umbrellas at the opposition National League for Democracy party's office, where unofficial results were to be shown on large TV screens through the night. Official results will be released beginning Monday.

"I am so excited. I've never been this happy in my life," said Aye Mhu, 49, as she watched a live broadcast of the ballots being counted on the giant screen. "This is the happiest day of my life."

Election monitors called it "a remarkable day" full of excitement and energy.

Although more than 90 parties are contesting, the main fight is between Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party, made up largely of former junta members. A host of other parties from ethnic minorities, who form 40 percent of Myanmar's 52 million people, are also running.

Certainly, though, the election will not bring full democracy to this nation, which spent nearly five decades under brutal military rule and the last five years under a quasi-civilian government. Myanmar's constitution guarantees 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military, and was rewritten to keep Suu Kyi, the country's most popular politician, from the presidency.

This time, however, there is hope that the election will move Myanmar a step closer to democracy.

After taking power in 1962, the junta first allowed elections in 1990, which Suu Kyi's party won overwhelmingly. A shocked army refused to seat the winning lawmakers, with the excuse that a new constitution first had to be implemented - a task that ended up taking 18 years amid intense international pressure. New elections were finally held in 2010, which the opposition boycotted, citing unfair election laws.

The USDP won by default and took office in 2011 under President Thein Sein, a former general who began political and economic reforms to end Myanmar's isolation and jump-start its moribund economy. But the USDP's popularity, or lack of it, was really tested in a 2012 by-election in which the National League for Democracy won 43 of the 44 parliamentary seats it contested.

Suu Kyi couldn't vote in any of those elections because she was under house arrest or there was no election in her residential area. But she did win a seat to parliament in the by-election.

Even if Suu Kyi's party secures the highest number of seats in the bicameral legislature in Sunday's vote, it will start with a disadvantage because of the reserved places for the military in the 664-seat parliament.

This means in theory that the USDP, with the military's support, need not win an outright majority to control the legislature. To counter that scenario, the NLD would require a huge win.

That may not be farfetched, given Suu Kyi's popularity.

After the polls, the newly elected members and the military appointees will propose three candidates, and elect one as the president. The other two will become vice presidents. That vote won't be held before February.

Suu Kyi cannot run for president or vice president because of a constitutional amendment that bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the top jobs. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband.

The military is also guaranteed key ministerial posts - defense, interior and border security. It is not under the government's control and could continue attacks against ethnic groups. But critics are most concerned about the military's constitutional right to retake direct control of government, as well as its direct and indirect control over the country's economy.

Richard Horsey, a Myanmar analyst, said that given the powers it has, the military will not be too perturbed about allowing a transfer of power to the NLD if it wins.

"But that's not to say the relationship between the new administration and the military will necessarily be a strong one," he said. "It's very difficult to imagine that anyone will be running the country without having the support of the military."

There are concerns also about the vote's credibility, because for the first time about 500,000 eligible voters from the country's 1.3 million-strong Rohingya Muslim minority have been barred from casting ballots. The government considers them foreigners even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Neither the NLD nor the USDP is fielding a single Muslim candidate.

Abdul Melik, a 29-year-old Rohingya, spent election day watching other people vote. He stared out from a camp on the outskirts of western Rakhine state's capital, Sittwe, where the Rohingya are forced to live in squalid camps and can't leave without official approval.

"I can see the Buddhist Rakhine, the Kaman Muslim and Hindus voting at a polling station close to the barricades," he said in a telephone conversation. "We were hoping that somehow we'd be allowed to vote. But today I have lost hope of any change in my lifetime."

"This is the day that hope ends," he added.

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