YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar voted on Sunday in a general election seen as a referendum on the fledgling democratic government that remains popular at home but has seen its reputation collapse overseas amid allegations of genocide.
While results are not expected until Monday, leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) is predicted to win comfortably. Thousands of her supporters gathered outside the party headquarters as darkness fell, waving flags and chanting “NLD must win!”
Suu Kyi has the support of a population that largely sees her as a heroine of democracy for her struggle against dictatorship. Her 2015 landslide win ended more than a half-century of military and military-backed rule.
Although Myanmar is seeing an average of 1,100 new daily coronavirus cases – compared to a handful in early August – fears over COVID-19 appeared not to dampen turnout among the 37 million registered voters.
In the biggest city, Yangon, long lines of voters wearing face masks and shields formed as the sun came up. In the evening, crowds outside the NLD party headquarters ignored entreaties by party officials to go home.
Chan Lone, a businessman among the crowd, said he was less worried about COVID-19 than the ruling party losing power. “The election is much important for the nation in the long-term,” he said.
Local election watchdog the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE) said in a statement as polls closed that observers had been allowed into the stations and there had been no major incidents.
“We would like to highlight the efforts of polling stations and sub-commissions to open polling stations on time and to implement COVID-19 prevention measures,” executive director Sai Ye Kyaw Swar Myint said.
More than a million people across the country were unable to vote after polls were cancelled due to insurgencies.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim minority confined to camps and villages inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state, most without citizenship, were also unable to vote.
The Democracy and Human Rights Party, a Rohingya party, said in a statement on Sunday it was “utterly disappointed” that the population had been disenfranchised.
The election commission has said the polls in areas affected by conflict had to be cancelled for safety reasons and that only citizens were entitled to vote.
The UN has said there was genocidal intent in a 2017 army crackdown that drove 730,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, which Myanmar says were legitimate operations against militants.
“Even though we were born there, today we can’t vote,” said Nowkhim, a 23-year-old living in Kutapalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. “My heart is crying today.”
‘HAND IN HAND’
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, 75, remains overwhelmingly popular in Myanmar, where a recent survey found 79% of people considered her the country’s most trusted figure.
But enthusiasm is weaker in remote regions dominated by ethnic minorities, many feeling sidelined by the Buddhist Bamar-majority central government.
Suu Kyi’s defenders say critics are unrealistic to expect rapid change in Myanmar and are hampering efforts to secure gradual progress.
Among the obstacles to some NLD reforms is a constitution that guarantees the military a political stake, including a 25% quota of legislative seats.
Tensions between Suu Kyi and the army have been running high, with military chief Min Aung Hlaing criticising “unacceptable mistakes” in the lead-up to the polls, which the government said risked creating fear and unrest.
But as he cast his vote in the capital Naypyitaw, Min Aung Hlaing said would “accept the result that comes from the people’s wishes”.
NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt said the ruling party had been careful not to “backstab” the army in handling the Rohingya crisis and would continue to work “hand in hand with the military”.
(Reporting by Zaw Naing Oo, Thu Thu Aung, Shoon Naing, Sam Aung Moon and Poppy McPherson; Writing by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Martin Petty, Billy Mallard and Frances Kerry)