By Danny Lee
Director for Community Affairs Development at the ASEAN Secretariat

The ASEAN Secretariat By-Elections Observation Team had gotten to an early start Friday. When we arrived at the residence of “The Lady”, over a hundred reporters and camera crews had already set up shop.

In the background, we had a cheery mix of Myanmar jazz, techno, pop. Cameras of all shapes and sizes were out in force, as many took pictures of almost everything around them, and posed for pictures with new-found, and long-lost friends. The atmosphere was so carnival that, when the press conference ended, a colleague asked if we should go grab some food from a nearby tent.

Weeks from now, I can imagine many reporters and diplomats from all over the world, showing off their shots over meals with their friends.

“See, this is ‘The House’ where ‘The Lady’ stays.”

“Yes, this is ‘The Lake’ where the guy swam over one dark night. Not sure it was stormy that night though.”

“Yeah, this is so-and-so from where-and-where. We were in Yangon to cover ‘The Lady’s’ news conference.”

That would be the typical conversation among many reporters.

Many would darkly recall how a three-page note detailing “election irregularities” was circulated among those present. I don’t know how many would recall her positive responses to many cynical questions.

“Aren’t you afraid you would be made use of by the military?” asked a reporter.

“I am not afraid. And if I am going to be used for the sake of the Nation then that’s fine by me,” said the opposition leader, who added that the military – which has been blamed for human rights abuses, “should be included in Myanmar’s democratic process”.

That is the unique and charming character of this country. Anywhere else in the world, the likely reaction would be one of revenge, and animosity towards the enemy.

But here in Myanmar, former victims are talking about the by-elections as the country’s first step to democracy. Instead of confrontation and tension, we see – and feel – a careful, measured sense of optimism.

Sure, no one pretended the problems had all gone away. But almost everyone I spoke with, are hoping that the April 1 by-elections would be Myanmar’s first foundation stone of democracy.

Student leaders who were arrested, and spent a good part of their youth in prison, are talking about raising the awareness of democracy among the people. They could be bitter against the establishment. Instead, many are keen to re-enter society and re-engage the establishment.

Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed faith in Myanmar President Thein Sein.

“If not for him, we would not be seeing some of the changes taking place now,” she said, adding that she’s confident the President supports democratic reforms.

This positive spirit extends to the diplomatic community here – especially among ASEAN member countries.

Pointing to the huge logistics challenges of organizing an election, a senior ASEAN Ambassador urged many to be aware of the practical hurdles that must be tackled in such an exercise.

“There are 8,324 polling stations, and about 6.48 million voters are eligible to cast their votes this Sunday,” he said.

Urging a fair and even view of the situation, the Ambassador said the ASEAN family is ready to help Myanmar tackle its challenges, which include hosting the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games next year, and chairing ASEAN in 2014.

Many have described Sunday’s vote as the first step to a long journey, and I am heartened and delighted to note that the Myanmar people are all set to begin that journey.