The stories of the military junta in Burma and the efforts of activists like Aung San Suu Kyi to install a republican government are well known. Since 2010, though, something extraordinary has been happening. Though it still wields a great deal of influence in the country’s affairs, the military has been gradually ceding control of the government to citizens, and in 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw (the House of Representatives in Burma’s Parliament. Things have not been perfect, but they are slowly moving to democracy in the country.
Another step forward happened today as residents of Burma’s largest city Yangoon went to the polls to elect a city government. This will be the first municipal election held in the city in 60 years. As the AFP reports (via France24):
Residents of Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon went to the polls Saturday for the first municipal elections in six decades, with voters hoping for change as the city booms, despite knowing little about the candidates or their policies.
The election will be closely watched as a test of the country’s democratic credentials ahead of a landmark nationwide poll slated for November next year.
For many the ballot for the Yangon City Development Committee is the first chance to vote under the country’s quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2011.
It is also a rare opportunity to have a say over the future of Myanmar’s biggest city, where residents grumble about runaway construction and soaring rents, worsening traffic, poor sanitation and weak pollution control.
This is a great step forward, but there is still much work to be done. As the article also notes:
[C]ritics say the Yangon poll is deeply flawed, citing the rule of just one person per household allowed to vote — meaning only around 400,000 people can cast a ballot — narrow age restrictions for candidates and a ban on political parties from taking part.
Appointed figures will still outnumber elected ones on the city’s top council within the YCDC, which has major responsibilities over infrastructure, heritage and tax collection in Yangon.
But it marks a major step by the body, which has not been chosen by popular ballot since 1949.
The law forbidding more than one person from each household needs to go. The top council should also remove the appointed figures for popularly elected ones. Neither of these two items takes into account local issues in the city, either. This new government has to perform well. If the democratic government succeeds here, it will likely pave the way for future liberal reforms down the road.
Elections are a routine event here in the United States. In fact, they’re so routine that they’re often boring. You go to the polling place, show the people your ID, go to a booth a check a few boxes on some paper or on a screen, leave the place, and go about your day. If the incumbent or the governing party loses, they concede and vacate their seat for the winner. As Ronald Reagan explained–about Presidential elections in particular–in his first Inaugural Address:
To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.
Events like this should remind us, as we head into a new year, that we should not take the rights we have here in the United States for granted. I don’t believe we are in any danger currently of becoming a Burmese-style military junta, and I don’t believe that we are in danger of becoming a Communist country. However, a populace that does not value its rights allows these things to happen. Let that steel your resolve to remain active in the political affairs of our country over the next few years.