These are scenes that were hard to imagine less than a year ago in a country that has only just started to make baby steps away from decades of totalitarian military rule and where the opposition National League for Democracy has not contested elections in 20 years.
In November 2010, the country’s world famous pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest where she had been held in total for 15 years, days after the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party won a widely criticised election.
Last week, the NLD leader was swamped by more than 10,000 supporters at Dagon Seikkan Township, campaigning against the USDP and other opposition parties in a ballot that will undoubtedly see her elected.
The daughter of independence hero and father of the nation, General Aung San, Suu Kyi commands an almost religious fervour among most of Myanmar’s desperately poor but increasingly hopeful population.
But not all of the pro-democracy parties running alongside the NLD in this election pay her the same deference.
Sitting opposition New National Democratic Party MP Thein Nyunt told the Post on Wednesday he was curious to see if “The Lady” had the stomach for the prison-like guesthouses of Myanmar’s new capital Naypyidaw.
“The lady, if she lives in the guesthouse where we live, I would like to think about cooperating with her. If she stays in a hotel, she cannot meet with me,” he said.
The blunt and humorous elder statesman’s party might have a rapper running for one seat, but he has no time for heroics and wants to know what Suu Kyi actually plans to achieve once her party wins a fraction of the seats being contested.
There is no doubt surprising things have been happening in the widely condemned parliament, including USDP members crossing the floor, legislative reforms and more robust debate than was ever expected.
Although it was tough competing in the government-dominated parliament, where 25 per cent of seats were automatically given to the military, Thein Nyunt said he had been surprised by some outcomes, such as the success of his legislation to free political prisoners.
“So I am a very minority opposition member in the parliament, but in the interest of country and people, the other members of parliament, USDP members and army members, all of them supp-orted my proposal,” he said.
There are younger voices in this campaign as well, such as Myanmar Democracy Congress chairman Kaung Myint Htut, thrice imprisoned since he joined the 1988 uprising as a 13-year-old, who said all of Myanmar’s opposition parties had a role in the reform process.
“If you gave me the chance to be a minister in the cabinet, I couldn’t do that right away, because I’m inexperienced,” he said.
“Our country needs both the experienced people in administration and other politicians who are loved so much by Burmese people, because we cannot make the people do these things by orders, but if people love the leaders in the cabinet, they would follow them.”
His campaign for the seat of Mingalatmauntgnyunt in Yangon and that of octogenarian Democratic Party [Myanmar] chairman Thu Wai are dwarfed by NLD candidate Phyu Phuy Thin, who commanded an audience of 1,000 supporters at a rally on Wednesday.
Both are disappointed by the NLD’s decision not to co-operate with them during this election against a common foe, the USDP.
Seventeen parties are contesting Sunday’s by-elections, but the bulk of the struggle for media coverage and resources has come down to the NLD and USDP.
The elections in 45 townships come as a result of seats being vacated as ministers and deputy ministers have taken up positions in government and represent just a tiny fraction of the seats in Myanmar’s 659-seat parliament.
Three additional seats have been temporarily struck off the ballot because of security concerns in war-torn Kachin state, in the country’s north.
ASEAN, the US and the EU are watching this ballot closely, and the latter two have said they will consider lifting crippling sanctions, currently supported by the NLD, if the election is free and fair.
That would pave the way for the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to come in and provide much-needed economic stimulus, though not everyone is convinced that these institutions will be a beneficial presence given their record in other developing countries.
There have been criticisms of technical aspects of the Myanmar electoral commission’s oversight in the by-elections, namely voter lists and the time allotted for registration.
But both opposition parties and monitors have told the Post the body has improved markedly since the sham 2010 election, although there have also been allegations of vote-buying and intimidation.
After long consideration, the government agreed at the last minute to allow international observers to monitor the vote. Local groups will also observe the vote, with members of the 88 Generation and the younger Generation Wave activists among those co-ordinating the efforts.
For a young hospitality worker from Arakan state, in Myanmar’s west, who declined to be named, it is still up in the air just how free and fair these elections are and what real significance they have.
“They create a beautiful scenario. How do they play this? I think at least this time we can see this openly,” he said.
While both the changes over the past year and the emergence of a new political space across Myanmar are impressive, the period after the elections will see the emergence of more critical tests for a “democracy” still dominated by the military.
What happens to the pace of the reforms after probable lifting of sanctions will, like the election, be an important litmus test of how genuine this process really is.
Winning the trust of former prisoners who spent much of their youth languishing in some of the world’s most deplorable jails and convincing them real change is on the way will, understandably, not be easy.
One former political prisoner, who spent more than a decade in jail for advocating reform, said he was not interested in other Asian models of so-called democracy.