It was pitch dark and strangely silent when we left the house. Ours has always been a fairly quiet residential neighbourhood but there were none of the small shops and street stalls that would normally be seen setting up early in the morning. I spied only five people along the five-minute drive to the polling station.
We then turned a small corner and voila – there was a queue of about 100 people. My heart leapt. It was only 5:40am, 20 minutes before the polls opened. Within minutes, the queue doubled in size.
People were in a jovial mood despite the darkness and the long line. Some laughed at how they had overslept – it had still not turned 6 – and ended up at the back of the queue. Others talked about votes being counted overnight and feeling excited.
There was a stir when what looked like ballot boxes were taken out of the prayer hall next door and into the high school that had been converted into a polling station for the day.
Our polling station opened slightly late – about ten minutes past 6am. Worried voters wondered whether the station should stay open ten minutes past 4pm in the afternoon too – in case not everyone had been able to cast their ballots. That was one of the recurring themes of the morning – whether everyone would manage to vote considering the system’s complexity.
A few people did not seem to know everyone had to cast at least three votes – one vote each for the Upper House, Lower House and state/region parliament. Yet there were also those who were giving out advice on what to do and how to vote.
The school compound was big but it housed five polling stations in total and only a small concrete walkway separating you from dirty, stagnant water and overgrown grass on both sides. So there was a lot of shoving and jostling, but everyone was in good humour.
There were quite a few elderly people voting. My own great aunt was 84 and we were not short of people who helped her walk and found her chairs to sit on as the queue snaked its way through the school compound and out on to the street. The elderly had been given the option of voting in advance to avoid the long lines.
“A lot of the grandparents are here today because they don’t trust the advance votes,” the gentleman behind me quipped. Those who were sitting down, including my great aunt, giggled in acknowledgement.
Whenever people who had voted came out, shouts of “did you succeed?” met them from some of the people waiting, mingled with envy that they had finished and we were still waiting. One man told his friends, “I got up at 4!”
There were people who had risen earlier than him. The first couple to get in and vote in our ward proudly showed their little fingers, dipped in indelible purple ink, saying they had been waiting since 3:30am.
It was 7 o’clock when I inched towards the desk where I was to show my voter slip, sign in the log book and sign again to receive my ballot paper. The power went out. Cheers erupted. A story in Burma wouldn’t be complete without power cuts, after all.
It took a little over 10 minutes to cast all three votes. Perhaps 100 people had voted in front of me, but my polling station, number 2 out of 5 in the compound, had 1,607 eligible voters. There was only nine more hours to go. I began to understand the worries expressed by some voters.
There was one more stop after I put the final vote in the ballot box. A lady sitting at the desk by the exit had in front of her an ink pot, which she gently guided my left pinkie into. I walked out and took a picture as the deep purple stain spread over my skin, joining the tens of thousands of fresh Burmese voters for whom it is now a badge of democratic honour.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the trials of being a first-time voter. I’m still concerned about the lack of policies and choices, and after 38 years of waiting, I admit my first time voting was bittersweet.
I was pleased to be able to vote – I believe voting is a civic duty – and to do so with so many of my compatriots who are determined that their voices will not go unheard. I remember being in a newsroom outside the country during the 2010 elections, reporting about the polls surreptitiously and speaking to voters who were either uninterested, disappointed and/or fearful of the outcome. I watched with mounting dismay – but not surprise – when the final results came in. In that sense, today was different
Yet I was still sad because it has taken 25 years since that morning when I woke up to a near-empty household in 1990 because most of my family members had gone to vote early in the morning. I was too young to vote, but then, as now, the country felt like it might be on the cusp of change.
I remember my family coming back around midday on 27 May. It was blazingly hot and sweaty and there were few shady areas around the polling station so my father, feeling unwell and worried about the health of our grandfather who was in his 70s, considered coming home without voting. Apparently my sister, who had just turned 18, put her foot down, he said.
“She said, ‘No one is going home. We are all going to vote. We are not wasting a single vote,’” I remember him recounting her words to me, both him and my grandfather beaming with pride. Both have since passed away.
Today I continue their legacy and the legacy of many Burmese people who believe in the power of the vote but never witnessed democracy in Burma. I just hope we have a better outcome than what confronted us in 1990.
Read the full 2015 election coverage here.