I was a toddler in 1990, the last time Myanmar voted in a supposedly free election. But, just like others of my generation, I grew up with the impact of what happened afterwards: the violent crackdown on protests; the total disregard for the election results by the military government.
These are the stories that have been told and retold to me throughout my life. They exist in my consciousness like ghosts in a haunted house. So it’s little surprise I couldn’t sleep well on the eve of Election Day. I stayed up watching instruction videos on how to stamp the ballots correctly.
At around 6am, I got up and looked out the window. I could already see long lines at one of the nearby polling stations. I’m a filmmaker, so I grabbed my camera and started shooting through the window. There must have been about 200 people but it was so peaceful. Some chatted happily with friends. Others just stood, smiling quietly. I guess sometimes history is made in serenity.
The line moved slowly at my polling station in San Chaung. I was sandwiched between a couple of younger kids and a family. We didn’t talk. We glanced at one another, with the same expression:“Wow! Can you believe this is actually happening?” I was covered in goosebumps. Two old ladies who must have been in their eighties walked gingerly, with canes in their hands, out of the voting booth. I choked up. My phone does not have an emoji to express this beautiful collision of joy and sadness.
Just as soon as the ink on my pinky finger dried, I headed out to Tha Nat Pin, a town in Bago, to be with my father who is running there as an NLD candidate. Election Day must have been truly special because there was no traffic on the Yangon streets. The journey was quicker than usual. Partly because I was totally absorbed in my friends’ Facebook updates around the country sharing their experience of voting. And partly because my driver was also in a hurry. “No piss break for anyone! I’m gonna drive fast! I haven’t voted yet!”
I visited about twelve different polling stations in Tha Nat Pin and nearby villages along the river. The scene was the same as in Yangon. Long lines of very disciplined and patient voters. Hard working schoolteachers in charge of the whole voting process. Proud voters showing off their newly inked pinky fingers to my camera. To quote the words of the legendary poet Ice Cube: “I can’t believe, today was a good day.”
Later in the evening, we stopped by to see my grandmother. She is 87 years old and fading fast. She can’t stand on her own. She struggles when she speaks. Her hands are cold. When I greeted her, she stared at me blankly. It was only a few years ago that I visited her. She was well then. And she was happy to see me. Now, she doesn’t remember me anymore. But she voted.
It will be a lie to say that I’ve waited all my life to vote. I’ve never waited. I’ve never really thought I would get the chance. This is what happens when you are brought up under oppression. You lose hope.
November 8th was a day when hopes of many Myanmar people were fulfilled. Now, we look ahead to build a new future. It’s not going to be easy. We have so many challenges to take on but we are excited. We feel like we can do anything. We voted and we feel good.
Lamin Oo is an award-winning Burmese filmmaker.
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