I was living, briefly, in West Berlin before the Wall came down. There were already holes in the Wall and the border guards weren't generally taking it that seriously any longer, so my German friends used to go over into East Berlin whenever they felt like it. It wasn't as safe for Americans but I had to do it, right? It gave me an eerier feeling than anything I had felt in the more relaxed Communist bloc countries I had spent time in-- basically Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. And the next time I got that same eery feeling-- well actually it was a Stalinist feeling was when I visited Myanmar in 2007-08. I just checked and I was making the comparison between East Berlin and Yangon almost a decade ago! East Berlin, I wrote in 2007, "didn't look free and romantic; the oppression, tyranny and decrepitude were apparent and tangible... and chilling. It scared and repulsed me. I was happy to get back to West Berlin."
A few hours ago, decades later, I just returned from a place like that, a place you read about in books by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: Myanmar.I'm happy to report now that in their first ostensibly free elections in many years, November 8, the Burmese have chosen to go down the path of democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy seems to have won a clear majority-- perhaps as much as 80% of the vote-- and the military-backed politicians failed in an election that picked 168 of the 224 representatives in the upper house of the national parliament (the remaining quarter of seats to be appointed by the military) and 325 of the 440 seats in the lower house (with 110 appointed by the military). The military's party only won 41 of the 478 seats that have been declared so far. Aung San Suu Kyi's party has won 387 of them and the military has said they will abide by the results of the election.
Myanmar was Burma when I was a small boy (and avid stamp collector). I remember there were military coups when I was in elementary school. It was one of those closed off places-- exotic, mysterious, impenetrable, vaguely dangerous, like Albania, Mongolia, North Korea... places no one ever went. In the 80s the military junta took the name SLORC (an unfortunate-sounding acronym for State Law and Order Restoration Council). It sounds like something from a James Bond movie. For the people there, I just discovered, it doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like a nightmare that never ends. Paid Republican lobbyists and operatives in DC got the military dictators to ditch the SLORC moniker for SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, which sounds far less ominous-- like Bush's Clear Skies Act).
One of the first things I noticed is that the oppressive, paranoid tyranny in Myanmar exists in a parallel world next to a beautiful traditional Buddhist culture. The gentle people, predisposed to kindness, seem a little nervous-- hundreds of beloved and revered monks were brutally and ruthlessly murdered by the regime a few weeks ago after peaceful demonstrations-- but when you shoot anyone (except some of the soldiers) a mengalaba (hello) their wariness invariably breaks down and they smile. They are friendly and the reserve often vanishes quickly and, at least in Yangon, more of them spoke English than anywhere else in Southeast Asia I've ever been.
The whole city seems to be rotting and breaking down, although it may also be a work in progress of sorts. The city is immense-- but kind of slow and quiet... kind of left behind as the rest of the region rushes headlong into the 21st Century and globalization. Roland says Yangon reminds him of Havana in many ways.
Reuters reported that the dictatorship conceded defeat early Monday "as the opposition led by democracy figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi appeared on course for a landslide victory that would ensure it can form the next government."
"We lost," Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) acting chairman Htay Oo told Reuters in an interview a day after the Southeast Asian country's first free nationwide election in a quarter of a century.
The election commission later began announcing constituency-by-constituency results from Sunday's poll. All of the first 12 announced were won by Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy (NLD).
The NLD said its own tally of results from polling stations around the country showed it on track to win more than 70 percent of the seats being contested in parliament, more than the two-thirds it needs to form Myanmar's first democratically elected government since the early 1960s.
"They must accept the results, even though they don't want to," NLD spokesman Win Htein told Reuters, adding that in the highly populated central region the Nobel peace laureate's party looked set to win more than 90 percent of seats.
Earlier a smiling Suu Kyi appeared on the balcony of the NLD's headquarters in Yangon and in a brief address urged supporters to be patient and wait for the official results.
The election was a landmark in the country's unsteady journey to democracy from the military dictatorship that made it a pariah state for so long. It is also a moment that Suu Kyi will relish after spending years under house arrest.
Although the election appears to have dealt a decisive defeat to the USDP, a period of uncertainty still looms over the country because it is not clear how Suu Kyi will share power with the still-dominant military.
The military-drafted constitution guarantees one-quarter of parliament's seats to unelected members of the armed forces.
Even if the NLD gets the majority it needs, Suu Kyi is barred from taking the presidency herself under the constitution written by the junta to preserve its power. Suu Kyi has said she would be the power behind the new president regardless of a charter she has derided as "very silly."
The military will, however, remain a dominant force. It is guaranteed key ministerial positions, the constitution gives it the right to take over government under certain circumstances, and it also has a grip on the economy through holding companies.
Incomplete vote counts showed some of the most powerful politicians of the USDP trailing in their bids for parliamentary seats, indicating a heavy loss for the party created by the former junta and led by retired military officers.
Among the losers was USDP chief Htay Oo, who told Reuters from the rural delta heartlands that are a bastion of support for his party he was "surprised" by his own defeat.