By Danny Lee
Director, Community Affairs Development, the ASEAN Secretariat
We were back at the very first polling station we observed this morning. The time was 7 minutes to 5 PM and close to a hundred people were gathered outside. All of them had already voted in the day, and they were there for the same purpose to observe the closing of the polls and the most important event – the vote count.
One young man smiled at me as we waited. He made a flapping gesture over his heart.
“Nervous!” he said.
“Which party do you support?” I asked him, quite certain that it was not the water-melon size ASEAN logo on my chest that’s making his heart flutter.
“NLD,” he said, referring to the opposition National League for Democracy headed by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. And he smiled nervously. I looked around at the faces around me. Everyone was friendly. We should thank Myanmar TV – which gave us extensive coverage when the ASEAN Secretariat delegation last month visited Myanmar with the Secretary-General of ASEAN, Dr Surin Pitsuwan. Our yellow tags around our necks said “Observer” and, throughout the day, every voter we spoke to was friendly and eager to talk. For the record, we visited 11 polling stations in Yangon Region. We started the day at 5.30 AM ahead of the opening of the polling station, and ended with the vote count at Mingala Taungnyunt.
From the city to the villages, young and old – even the physically-handicapped – everyone greeted us with a smile when we said “ASEAN”. They were ready to answer our questions – Is this your first vote? Is it easy for you to come here? Are you familiar with the procedures/Do you know what to do? Did you have any problems or difficulties with your vote?
We heard rumors of a voter with a waxed ballot and thus problems marking her candidate. We met to speak with her but there were many enthusiastic “back-up” answers from people around her. We insisted that only the complainant could answer our questions, since only she encountered a problem. We also spoke to polling officials–nervous as the complainant had already been filed to opposition officials. From speaking with both sides, it was clear that the pen was the culprit to the problem. In any case, the complainant confirmed that she did cast her vote–with her original ballot as the officials could not exchange it for her.
In another town, dozens of voters were supposedly turned away. The reason? Their names were not on the electoral rolls. Officials explained that reminders for voters to check and correct the electoral registers have been communicated through TV and newspapers. This additional perspective was verified with voters from other polling stations. The persons affected told us they were busy working, and had no time to appeal to their district election commission.
Back to closing at our first polling station at Mingala Taungnyunt.
The vote count was the most straightforward and environmentally friendly method I’ve seen. When time came to close the polls, officials stood at the doorway, and loudly announced that voting had closed. In front of more than a hundred people that had gathered, the ballot boxes were opened, and the spoilt votes were shown to party representatives, before they were set aside. Then came the vote count.
Five officials represented five candidates at the counting. With all the officials facing the crowd, every ballot was checked and placed in a plastic basket in front. By the time the last vote was assigned, it was clear that the Opposition had won.
The same young man now looked relieved. NLD had won. But like the rest of the crowd, he wanted to stay on to hear the result.
“The NLD had received 740 votes,” said the official, as loud applause and cheering erupted. This polling station had a total of 821 valid votes. Still, the now-jubilant crowd wanted their celebration to be final. When the 12 advanced votes were counted, the NLD picked up another 10 votes, making a total of 750 votes in this station.
Watching the celebrations around me, I am moved by what I have seen over the past few days. The spirit of hope and the readiness by all the key players to move ahead is just remarkable. Although the crowd at Mingala Taungnyunt were behind the NLD, no one – not a single voice among that hundred-plus crowd had jeered at the ruling USDP. People at front updates to people at the back, so everyone knew what’s happening. Myanmar voters have shown that jubilant celebrations need not to be rowdy.
When we visited Ms Aung San Suu Kyi last month, she had half-jokingly suggested that Myanmar will be the advanced member of ASEAN in 20 years time. With its resourceful and positive people, and the country’s rich resources, I would not treat her statement as a joke.
As I packed my bags, ready to catch the morning flight to Phnom Penh tomorrow, I feel a swelling of pride, joy, and expectation for this lovely country. You have shown great spirit and promise. As you take the first step towards national reconciliation and development, I have nothing but good wishes and lots of affection for this Golden Land and its lovely people.
I will be back!