Myanmar has been called a country frozen in time, usually in reference to Bagan’s historic temples or Yangon’s state-run taxi fleet of 1980s automobiles. Five months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won forty-three of forty-five seats in a parliamentary bi-election, the phrase fits the country’s politics as well. Long-time military ruler Than Shwe has given way to reformist Prime Minister U Thein Sein. Suu Kyi has made formerly unimaginable appearances in European capitals. The United States and the European Union have suspended economic sanctions effective since the military regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. Yet with the next concrete step toward democratization promising parliamentary elections in 2015, Myanmar finds itself on the frustrating precipice of a still unrealized democracy.
Some are not waiting for democracy to come to them. In the National League for Democracy’s Nyaung Oo headquarters, men in polo shirts and customary longyis sort through stacks of party registration papers. U Myant Khine, a 63-year old retired police officer and NLD volunteer, eagerly explains that the party is using the time before the elections to build a rural base outside its traditional stronghold in Yangon.
The Nyaung Oo branch has already registered 7,000 new party members in the surrounding township, and hopes to register 20,000. In the meantime, the NLD is preparing for intra-party primaries to select candidates for the 2015 parliamentary elections. Amongst the volunteers in the one-room office covered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Aung San, whose military heroics brought Myanmar independence from Britain in 1948, there is confidence that the 2015 elections will be free and fair.
“For fifty years we have lived under dictatorship. Now things are changing. Now we will establish a good society,” U Myant Khine tells me. Not everyone is so optimistic. Down the road in New Bagan, ‘U Phyo Zaw’ reminds me frequently not to publish his real name. “Yes there is reform, but still there is no law. Today the government says one thing, tomorrow it does another.”
A former political prisoner who was arrested in a brazen attempt to film police beating demonstrating monks in 2006, U Phyo Zaw first caught democracy fever as a thirteen-year old in 1988. Then, Yangon was swept with the most forceful pro-democracy demonstrations of Myanmar’s half-century military rule. These days he spends afternoons writing a history of political protest in the post-independence period, and evenings cautiously discussing reform with western tourists on the tops of Bagan’s historic temples.
With legs crossed on a reed mat in his three-room, tin exterior shack, under pictures of Aung San and Aung San Suu Kyi that would not have been permissible five years ago, U Phyo Zaw speaks of his doubts about the Thein regime: “I always ask, why are we so poor? Myanmar is rich in natural resources. This government sees people eating out of garbage cans. It does not care.” In Aung San Suu Kyi, he sees the only hope for his two sons, age sixteen and ten, whose prospective university fees exceed the family’s yearly income. “Thein Sein’s grandson goes to an expensive school in Singapore,” he says through clenched teeth. “This is not fair. This is not democracy.”
Back at party headquarters in Nyaung Oo, U Myant Khine works his way through a thick stack of registration forms. “All my life we have struggled. Now we have a chance to give democracy to the young people.” Then he smiles up at the picture of Aung San hanging next to the daughter who has sacrificed so much to carry on his work. “These fifty years were only an interruption. Now we get independence again.”
With that attitude, perhaps three years is not so long to wait.