Lining up for hours on dusty city streets and country dirt lanes, voters in Myanmar turned out en masse on Sunday in elections that were expected to leave the governing party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the biggest force in the country’s Parliament.
The strong turnout, in only the second truly contested elections the country has held in decades, underscored the voters’ commitment to Myanmar’s nascent democracy, which remains in the shadow of a military dictatorship that ruled for 50 years.
Halfway across the world from where Americans were assessing the state of their own democracy, the elections in Myanmar served as a crucial referendum on a political transition that is neither orderly nor ordained.
“I had to vote today because my vote will count for our country’s future,” said U Sithu Aung, a physiotherapist who waited for two hours in the sun to cast his ballot in the city of Mandalay. “I know there is a risk of Covid but voting is more important than getting infected with a virus.”
The elections gave voice to a generation of young, independent candidates and ethnic minority politicians, in a country that has for so long been dominated by two political players: the National League for Democracy, the leading political party, and the military, which still maintains command of much of the government.
On Sunday, 87 parties competed in the elections. Many were ethnic parties and others were from parties founded by those who had once been close to the country’s civilian leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, only to have broken with her.
Critics say that the governing party, despite having been founded in democratic opposition to the military, is now repeating some of the sins of its former foe. The government of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest at the behest of the military generals, has arrested scores of students, artists and farmers, simply for expressing their political views.
The electoral commission, under the sway of the ruling party, has censored opposition party members and disenfranchised many people who do not belong to the Bamar ethnic majority.
“People being left out is not a new thing in Myanmar, sad to say,” said U Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who runs a policy think tank in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar. “The majority have been inured to explaining this away as Buddhist karma.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s detractors also accuse the National League for Democracy of having devolved into a personality cult around a 75-year-old leader with an imperious command over her party. Overseas, the reputation of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been battered by her defense of the military in its ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims.
“The ruling party is very tied to Aung San Suu Kyi but we don’t want heroism,” said Ma Ei Thinzar Maung, a 26-year-old ethnic minority activist who ran for a parliamentary seat in Yangon. “During this democracy era, the state of democracy in Myanmar has gone backward. We had hoped it would go forward.”
Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung, who was imprisoned for her student activism, lost on Sunday to a ruling party candidate.
After the military seized power in 1962, elections took place in 1990; Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly, but the military ignored the results and prevented a civilian government from forming. Elections were held again in 2010, under rules designed to stifle the opposition, which boycotted the contest.
When fairer elections were finally held in 2015, the National League for Democracy trounced the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party. Those elections began the era of power-sharing between a civilian government and the military.
Like the African National Congress in South Africa, the National League for Democracy remains the country’s pre-eminent political force, with broad voter loyalty shaped by the long years of political imprisonment endured by its founders.
But the party was not expected on Sunday to win with quite the landslide it did five years ago. Back then, having the mantle of the opposition party was enough to propel candidates to victory.
This time around, there was sniping about the National League of Democracy’s shortcomings as a governing party. The pandemic hit Myanmar late but it is now sweeping through a country with one of the worst health care systems in the world. Despite the lifting of international sanctions imposed because of human rights concerns, Myanmar never received an expected boon in foreign investment. The coronavirus has thrashed the economy further.
And for all the voter enthusiasm that was recorded on Sunday, more than 1.5 million people among an electorate of 37 million were excluded from the polls. Last month, the election commission canceled the vote for many ethnic minorities living in conflict zones, citing security concerns. Legal experts pointed out that the vote should have been suspended, not canceled outright, and wondered whether the disenfranchisement was a deliberate tactic by the governing party.
“In some ethnic areas, people are very hostile to the N.L.D. and support ethnic parties instead,” said Andrew Ngun Cung Lian, a constitutional scholar who also served as an ethnic peace negotiator. “It feels like the N.L.D. took advantage of the fighting to silence ethnic people.”
In addition to those whose votes were canceled last month, a million or so Rohingya Muslims, many of whom were pushed out of the country by ethnic cleansing campaigns, were not able to cast ballots either.
Ethnic minority groups make up about one-third of Myanmar’s population, and they have suffered disproportionately from persecution by the military: gang rape, forced labor and village burnings, among other crimes documented by human rights groups.
In Mon State in southeastern Myanmar, Mi Yin Sa Ning said she had chosen a Mon ethnic party over the National League for Democracy. Like many in the state, she was furious when the government named a bridge there after Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, an independence icon who is viewed by some in Mon as a subjugator.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi always says the words ‘federal democratic country,’ but her actions only lead to dictatorship,” Ms. Yin Sa Ning said. “Both she and the military are working to get power, not for the citizens.”
The Mon Union Party appeared to have cut into the National League for Democracy’s dominance in Mon State, according to preliminary results released late on Sunday night.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s treatment of ethnic minorities, particularly her refusal to condemn the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, has led international governments to withdraw their awards and keys to their cities. Her reputation as a human rights icon shattered last year when she led her country’s defense against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice.
But at home, where extremist monks are fanning sectarian flames, some in the Buddhist heartland see her instead as a pawn of oil-rich Sheikhs. They worry that an Islamic wave will wash over Buddhist-majority Myanmar, as it did centuries ago from Afghanistan to Indonesia, even though only about 5 percent of the country is Muslim.
Perhaps to counter those fears, the National League for Democracy fielded no Muslim candidates in 2015. This time around, there were only two. (Both candidates won on Sunday, one against Ms. Ei Thinzar Maung.)
“Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is not protecting the country,” said U Raja, a monk who is part of a nationalist Buddhist movement. “They are building their power just to show off and have no skill in ruling the country.”
Hannah Beech reported from Bangkok and Saw Nang from Yangon, Myanmar.