Sometimes the tea was bitter. Other times it was cloyingly sweet with condensed milk. But the whispered questions at teahouses across Burma were always delivered the same way. Head flick to the right, head flick to the left. A nervous glance backward. No one listening, not even the waiter shuffling up to slosh hot water into our glass tumblers? Good. What did I, as an American who had the good fortune to vote in one of the most exciting presidential races in recent memory, think of Burma's upcoming national elections?
Two decades after ignoring the results of Burma's last polls, the country's long-ruling junta has promised another electoral exercise next year, most likely by springtime. Few doubt that the generals' henchmen will stuff ballot boxes to try to ensure that the opposition doesn't prevail like it did back in 1990, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) crushed the military's proxy party. (In a troubling portent, official approval of last May's constitutional referendum was tabulated at a credulity-straining 92.4%.) But the query put to me recently in the nation's teahouses got to the heart of a fundamental political dilemma: Is an election, even one that surely will be as flawed as Burma's promises to be, better than nothing at all? (See pictures of destruction in Burma after Cyclone Nargis.)
My answer, of course, was less important than what Burmese living under one of the world's most Orwellian regimes thought. And what they said surprised me. Yes, some deemed the elections "useless." Others conceded that the obstacles to even a semblance of electoral freedom are formidable. Before a single vote is cast, Burma's elections will be rigged. The newly minted constitution ensures that top leadership posts are reserved for the military, which, above all, appears to be motivated by self-preservation. Many members of the political opposition including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who still languishes under house arrest have been excluded from participating in the polls by regulations both arcane and outlandish. This month, five members of her NLD were arrested, joining an estimated 2,100-plus political prisoners who suffer in Burmese jails double the number from two years ago, according to a recent U.N. report. Some opposition parties have vowed to boycott the elections unless the prisons are cleared of political detainees.
But even as Burmese friends piled up caveats as high as the spires of the tallest pagoda, I could sense an awakening political consciousness that excited them. One young man, in a remote town I will not name lest I get him in trouble, confided that he and his friends had organized a study group to debate the merits of electoral politics. (One of the participants also runs a free class called "The Secrets of Gmail: a Pre-Advanced Course.") In northern Burma, where minorities recall that ethnic-based parties came in second and third in the 1990 polls the army's party finished fourth former insurgent groups often bogged down by infighting are now considering electoral alliances. A strategic show of unity could easily fracture into shards of self-interest, particularly as the junta tries to drive wedges within and between tribes. But without an electoral catalyst, there might be little prospect for an end to intra-ethnic squabbling.
Some eight years ago, I covered village elections in China, where the victors farmers in Mao suits with dirty fingernails were barred from taking office by the incumbents and eventually jailed on trumped-up charges. One man was so harassed that he committed suicide. This doesn't sound like a heartwarming tale of democracy's triumph. But what has evolved in these villages despite all the injustice is a dawning sense that people, even poor people, have rights. In societies cowering under oppression, such a realization is revolutionary.
Sipping tea in another Burmese town, I listened as a companion recalled his favorite line from the U.S. presidential inaugural address by John F. Kennedy: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Sitting between us was a shy young man who practiced this new English sentence over and over, savoring Kennedy's rhetorical flourish. The words took on a strange quality in Burma, a place where people don't expect their country to do much of anything for them. But the young student was willing to take up the challenge of the other half of Kennedy's equation. "It's my responsibility to my country to teach people about the elections," he said. "People say they are stupid, but we have nothing else to look forward to." I watched as the English-speaking waiter loitering a little too close to our table grinned. But it wasn't a smile of condescension from a government informant. It was a smile, I think, of hope.