During the bad years — and there were many — Myint Soe would prepare meals for democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi: fish noodle soup for breakfast and an assortment of Burmese salads, stews and rice for the rest of the day. He knew that he courted trouble working as cook for a Nobel Peace Prize laureate confined to house arrest by Burma’s military regime. Yet the longtime member of her National League for Democracy (NLD) never wavered from serving the woman he calls “Sister Suu.”
As darkness fell on Nov. 8, Myint Soe — gray hair pulled into a ponytail, sarong wrapped around his waist, betel nut nestled by his gums — surveyed the throngs of NLD supporters in front of the party headquarters in Rangoon, the commercial capital of a country officially known as Myanmar. A couple hours before, the polls had closed in Burma’s most historic elections in a generation. Now the vote counting, a process that election officials warn will take days, had begun, and the crowds cheered as a screen overhead flashed ballots cast for the NLD. “I will stay here all night,” said Myint Soe, as campaign songs blared over loudspeakers. “We endured all these troubles for so long but now this day has come because my sister always had confidence.”
The NLD may be Burma’s opposition force but expectations are high in Rangoon that Suu Kyi’s party will prevail in Sunday’s vote. Precedent counts in the party’s favor: in 1990, the NLD won a balloting that the military regime ignored. Instead of taking helm of Burma’s government, Suu Kyi was forced into house arrest for 15 years before her release in late 2010. So adored is Suu Kyi for that sacrifice — along with her status as daughter of independence hero Aung San — that voter after voter in Rangoon simply reported they had chosen the NLD, the name of the actual parliamentary candidate forgotten. Suu Kyi wouldn’t have minded: during the campaign, she urged supporters to vote for the party, not the candidate.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities were disenfranchised in this election, and opposition-party candidates questioned a litany of anomalies in their polling stations. Nevertheless, fears of electoral violence didn’t materialize. By dinnertime, Burmese were contemplating the electoral losses of several big names from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which has served as the military’s proxy ever since the generals who ruled for nearly 50 years promised to devolve some power to civilians.
More than 90 parties campaigned for seats in parliament. (One-quarter of the legislature is reserved for the military.) But in Rangoon one party dominated conversations. Hein Wai Lin, a seaman who has traveled the globe for seven years, arrived home on Sunday morning, after having raced from Shanghai to Hong Kong to Rangoon in order to vote. “We need the NLD to win,” he said, looking at his 2-month-old son whom he had just met for the first time hours before. “We want our children to have a good future.”
A single election will not ensure that, especially given the impediments to democratic rule the junta wove into Burma’s seven-year-old constitution. The results of Sunday’s balloting are not even in, nor is a full judgment on how free and fair the elections were. Still, Sunday was a time for NLD supporters in Rangoon to celebrate. “This day is very historic,” said Suu Kyi’s longtime cook, Myint Soe. “I am so happy my heart is quivering.”