Tag Archives: Elections



As mentioned in my first Myanmar post, I was a bit nervous traveling to a country whose government has such a violent and oppressive reputation.

And of course, they would be having by-elections during my visit.

While everybody said election time should be safe, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. This would be the third time in more than 20 years Myanmar had a democratic election, and only two years since the military government transformed into a “civilian” government, still led by former military men. Furthermore, this would be the first time Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party would be running for office since “The Lady” was put under house arrest in 1989 and her party’s landslide 1990 election victory nullified by the military junta.

Curious? Yes. But very, very concerned…

In the weeks leading up to the election, we saw campaigning throughout Myanmar, and it was fascinating. Parades of trucks drove through small towns bearing loudspeakers and loads of people, all wearing NLD t-shirts and all with big smiles on their faces. Campaign tables sold t-shirts, buttons and flags bearing the red NLD slogan and faces of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, as well as her father General Aung Sang, heralded by many as the father of modern day Myanmar.

Myanmar Elections - Kalaw

National League for Democracy campaigning in Kalaw

As the world watched (foreign observers being allowed in for the first time), the NLD succeeded in winning 43 out of the 44 seats it contested and largely without problems. While the win only gives the NLD a small minority in Myanmar’s still military party-dominated parliament, it does give them a foot in the door and a voice unheard for the past 20 years.

Unfortunately, I was caught in a 12-hour bus to Yangon on the day following elections, but when I did finally reach the city I still found plenty of activity happening in the NLD headquarters. While the immediate celebrations had finished, dozens of people still loitered both inside and outside the building, while supporters continued to sell NLD t-shirts and other items outside. In fact, vendors all throughout the city were selling NLD t-shirts, something that would have been unheard of, even illegal, just a few months beforehand.

Myanmar Elections - NLD Headquarters

NLD supporters outside the party’s headquarters in Yangon

While speaking with supporters outside, one girl invited me to an election celebration to be held the following day in a town nearby. Between her broken English and our rushed conversation, I really had only a 30 percent idea of what was actually going on the next day. All I knew was I had an address scribbled on a piece of paper written in English and Burmese with instructions to arrive around 9 a.m. the next morning.

Somehow the next day, I managed to convince my friend Gloria plus two random strangers to share a taxi with me to the middle of nowhere to take part in a random event I vaguely understood. And the experience was unforgettable.

An hour from Yangon, we found ourselves in North Okkalapa, a small, poor village and hometown of Naing Ngan Lin, the NLD winner of Dakkina Thiri, one of the constituencies of Myanmar’s capital city, Nay Pyi Taw. We had been invited to his post-election party.

When we arrived in the town, Naing Ngan Lin and about 50 friends, family and supporters were eating and celebrating in a small restaurant in town. As the only foreigners, we were quickly made the center of attention, with everyone, including Naing Ngan Lin himself, eager to speak with us.

Naing Ngan Lin

Naing Ngan Lin and his family

Naing Ngan Lin had an interesting story.

He told me he had been involved in politics for the past seven years, though mostly as part of a separate democratic party, the United Front of Burmese Activists for Democracy, before choosing to join the NLD.

His main contribution, however, were his schools.

Walking through Northokkalapa, rundown houses stand on stilts standing above mucky water and garbage-covered dirt, while children and stray animals run freely throughout. While money was clearly an issue, one woman told me that many children could not attend school, because they had to stay home and take care of their younger brothers and sisters while both of their parents were at work.

Northokkalapa, Myanmar


Naing Ngan Lin’s goal had been to build free schools for children who could not afford to attend the government schools, and he had created five schools to date.

But Naing Ngan Lin’s political activities had made him a suspicious figure by the government for years. In fact, he told me he had been arrested twice, first in 2006 for suspicions that a foreign teacher had been illegally giving scholarships for his school (which Naing Ngan Lin said was false) and second in 2009 for “no reason” one day outside an Internet café. Naing Ngan Lin said, though treated well, he was detained for two months the second time and only released after American Senator Jim Webb’s high profile visit to the country in 2009.

Even during his legal campaign for his NLD seat, Naing Ngan Lin told me two of his campaign workers had been threatened, though none of that seemed to faze him. His sights were set on the future. Now, he said, his constituency had two main problems: access to clean water and consistent electricity, and he told me he planned to build a new well.

Leaving Northokkalapa, I was grateful I had taken that random taxi to the middle of nowhere and gotten just a little piece of what these historic elections are like for people on a more intimate level.

While it’s only been a few months since the elections, things have already started changing for Myanmar, with both the European Union and the United States lifting some of its sanctions against them. Though only small steps so far, I will be very eager to see what happens next…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bersih 2.0 Rally – An Eyewitness Account


Yelling all around, shoving my way through a crowd of 20 men to squeeze through a two-foot gate with angry, baton-holding police at our heels, those few minutes during the Kuala Lumpur Bersih 2.0 rally ended up being some of the most terrifying minutes of my life.

Some few seconds before, I naively assumed my friend Jullian and I were in the “safe” zone, a quieter area on a hill above the city streets looking down on the now-vacant intersection of Jalan Pudu and Jalan Tun Perak that, minutes before, had been full of thousands of protesters demanding fair and frequent elections and an end to corruption.

Jullian and I had arrived earlier that day to Masjid Jamek – one of the protesters’ several gathering points throughout Kuala Lumpur – to witness a major political rally that had the potential to completely change the Malaysian government. After failing to compromise on a suitable protest location, the government had declared the street rally illegal, blocked all major accesses into the city and threatened to arrest anyone who disobeyed that day.  Armed with a backpack full of bottled water, extra clothes, snacks and surgical masks, we had prepared for the worst.

Me at Masjid Jamek before the rally - not really sure what's going to happen

Jullian and I had arrived at the Masjid Jamek subway station around noon, a full two hours before the protests were supposed to start. As I looked around outside, I was surprised to find things quite calm. As all major roads to the city had been shut down the night before, nearly all the shops were closed and most of the streets had been deserted. Local police officers in their dark blue uniforms casually patrolled the streets, as patches of reporters, gawkers and protestors stood around, some taking pictures, some chatting amongst themselves but all waiting for what was about to happen.

Behind the first line, however, it was clear that police were prepared for anything but a casual afternoon. Dark blue “Black Maria” trucks with benches in the boot and gates in the back waited to take away protesters. Behind them, giant red trucks stood patiently for their turn to hose down the crowds. All around, riot police, donned in black uniforms and red helmets, wielded their weapons, some toying with their tear gas guns, others tapping their batons against the plastic of their shin protectors.

To avoid trouble, Jullian and I had decided to play the roles of tourist and tourist guide, despite the fact that I’ve been in Malaysia for a year now, and he is one of my best friends and colleagues. We did our best to smile and act normal as we walked behind the police lines and decided to join the cops and get an ice cream with the vendor on the corner. To my surprise, the police were really friendly with me. They welcomed my requests to take pictures and even invited me to pose with them, as they slouched on the steps, also enjoying their ice creams.

Riot police relaxing and eating ice cream before the rally

But within minutes, before I could even finish my ice cream, that peace was ended. Suddenly, the random crowds began to turn the corner, journalists running, and Jullian and I followed to find the rally had officially begun. With rhythmic chants of “Hidup, Hidup, Keadlian!” and “Reformasi!” (“Long Live Justice!” and “Reformation!”) several hundred protesters had begun to march.

To my surprise, the protesting crowd was quite small, far less than the tens of thousands of people the organizers had expected. But as we made our way to Jalan Tun Perak, it soon became apparent that our little crowd was just the beginning. As we stood on the steps of the Maybank Tower, the apparent gathering point of the rally, we watched as swarms of protesters from all corners of the intersection joined in what soon became a massive crowd of thousands.  Around us, people continued to chant, brandishing Malaysian flags and waving around smuggled in yellow t-shirts and balloons – representations of Bersih’s official color. Somewhere in the distance, instructions were being given in Malay from a loudspeaker connected to a phone from unseen leaders who had been banned from entering the city, while police on the outside began to warn the crowd to disperse immediately or they would move in.

Thousands of protesters gathered in Kuala Lumpur demanding fair and free elections

Jullian and I decided our best bet was to stay close to the police, with easy access to move behind the line and run if necessary. As we stood on the side, directly in line with the riot police, I realized the careless, relaxed faces I had seen earlier had been completely replaced with expressions of anger and threat.

As we watched the large red truck enter into the intersection, my heart began to race: the water cannons were coming first. Safe behind the police line, we watched as gallons of water were turned on the crowds, spewing around 180 degrees. It wasn’t until the red truck started reversing toward us and the tear gas came out that we began to run. Loud shots fired from behind and my heart began to pound as we headed even further behind the police line and stopped to watch what was going on. A haze of gas and water lie ahead of us in the street and all around people began to cough, some rinsing their eyes out with bottles of water to relieve the sting. It took a few minutes for me to feel the effects, but soon my eyes began to sting and tear, as if I had just cut up a lot of onions, and my throat began to burn. Jullian and I quickly joined with the others in rinsing our eyes with water and headed to higher ground in hopes of both escaping the gas and gaining a vantage point on what had happened to the crowds.

Riot police make an arrest during the Bersih 2.0 rally

As we reached the top of the hill, the saturated, foam-covered pavement below revealed there was clearly something other than just water in those cannons – and clearly that substance had done its job.  Crowds began dispersing into other streets of the city, and though we were in front of the police line, I didn’t realize that the small crowd gathered around us, some praying fervently, would be next in line for arrest. As I stood photographing those who were praying, ignoring Jullian’s calls to move, I didn’t realize that a band of riot police were beginning to surround us, ready to charge. It wasn’t until Jullian screamed at me to run that I realized they were coming for us – and they had weapons. In front of me a group of men were fervently trying to squeeze through a narrow gate and Jullian kept pushing and yelling at me to run and get out. The prospect of brushing up and competing to escape against this aggressive, stampede of men more than terrified me,  but when I turned around to see a line of angry riot police waving their batons and grasping for arrests, I was scared out of my mind. As the police grabbed one of the men and pulled him to the ground, I ran behind them and pressed myself against the wall of the building, clinging to Jullian and shaking in fear. For some reason, they didn’t bother with us and Jullian and I ducked slowly back to the “safe zone” to recuperate and observe.

Around, police began to bring in the new arrests, one dragged by his arms, another with torn clothing and still another, donned in bright yellow, wearing a tribal indigenous hat with a big smile on his face. Even old ladies were detained, and soon those earlier empty “Black Marias” were fully-loaded and headed for the jails.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, Jullian and I returned to Masjid Jamak – now vacant – to sit, relax and regroup. The angry crowds that had filled the street just hours before had vanished, though the groups of local police officers patrolling the now-closed subway entrance made it clear the battle was not yet over. Every now and then, Jullian and I caught a glimpse of a crowd turn the corner, smaller now, but chanting with every bit of passion they had displayed some few hours before.

Despite an exhausting cat and mouse game, protesters refused to give up

Word on the street was that the crowds were headed to the Kuala Lumpur City Centre, the heart of the capital and the site of its famous Petronas Twin Towers, for what could have been a dramatic end to the rally. But as we arrived in front of the gleaming iconic landmarks – representations of Malaysia’s growing strength and development – protesters were nowhere to be found. Instead, rows of riot police roamed the streets, this time on horseback, in an ironic contrast to the modern monuments behind them.

In the end, both the government and the protesters declared that day a success and as Jullian and I left the city centre, tired, sore and starving, I realized our day, too had been a success. Chased, tear-gassed and nearly arrested, we managed to walk away completely unscathed. And as I read of the more than 1600 people that were arrested that day, I recalled the images of the tattered shirts, dragging knees and grounded men and realized how truly lucky we were. Though no physical marks remain, the memory of the Bersih 2.0 rally was a life-changing experience that will stay with me forever.

To hear my live radio interview with WDET Detroit Public Radio on the event, please click here.