Sometimes the tea was bitter. Other times it was cloyingly sweet with condensed milk. But the whispered questions at teahouses in Rangoon and 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 glasses? 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 its last polls, Burma's long-ruling junta has promised another electoral exercise next year, most likely by spring. Few doubt that the generals' henchmen will ensure that the opposition doesn't prevail as it did back in 1990, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) crushed the military's proxy party. (In a troubling precedent, a recent constitutional referendum received a credulity-straining 92% approval.) But the queries put to me during my recent visit got to the heart of a fundamental political dilemma: Is any election, even one so likely to be flawed, better than nothing at all?
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 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. Many members of the political opposition--including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who still languishes under house arrest--have been barred from running by regulations both arcane and outlandish. Five NLD members were arrested last month, joining more than 2,000 political prisoners who suffer in Burmese jails--double the number of two years ago, according to a recent U.N. report.
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. A young man in a remote town 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--insurgent groups encouraged to feud by the junta are now considering political alliances.
Eight years ago, I covered village elections in China, where the victors--farmers with Mao suits and 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 the injustice, is a dawning sense that people--even the extremely poor--have rights. In societies cowering under oppression, such a realization is revolutionary.
Sipping tea in another Burmese town, I listened as a companion recited his favorite line from John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address: "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 had 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 Kennedy's challenge. "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 the smirk of a government informant. It was a smile, I think, of hope.