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Why Myanmar's elections are so historic

On Sunday, more than 30 million people will cast their ballots in Myanmar’s first “free” election in 25 years.

It has been almost five years since Myanmar’s military dictatorship was formally dissolved, but most members of the country’s two houses of Parliament are former military officers. Meanwhile, the people they’re meant to serve and protect are straddling one of the widest income gaps in the world, while facing ethnic persecution and a civil war. They are harshly censored and unable to speak out against the government, on the streets or in a song.

Here’s a rundown of how politics are supposed to work in Myanmar: 75% of Parliament is chosen by voters. The remaining 25% is appointed by the country’s armed forces. Next, the two houses of Parliament and the military each nominate one candidate for the presidency. All the politicians vote and the winner becomes president. The other two candidates become joint vice presidents.

Yet, in 1990, when the National League for Democracy won 59% of the national votes and 81% of Parliament, The Party’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (“Daw” means “aunt” in Burmese—a title given to her by her people), spent 15 years under house arrest for being a threat to the military, which immediately tightened its grip on the country and squashed that whole democracy thing.

Myanmar has been opening itself up to international influence in recent years, trying to attract foreign business and tourism. Now that the polls are open again, Suu Kyi and her party are back. They’re rallying against the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party, led by President Thein Sein, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing. Suu Kyi technically can’t become president because she married a foreigner (owing to a new Constitution introduced in 2008). But if her party wins, she has vowed to find a way around that and to transform her country into a place where its people have a voice.

With a more balanced parliament, this could be the beginning of the end for Myanmar’s decades-long civil war and thorny history of cultural and financial segregation. Imagine a world where artists can make the art they want, inspired minds can start the businesses they want, and people can speak their minds without fear of persecution.

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