Watching the Vote Count in Burma

Five minutes before the polls closed at 4pm, my cousin, four neighbors and I entered a school in a Rangoon suburb where two polling stations had been set up.

I wanted to be one of the last voters. My plan was to monitor the vote-counting process as it is my right under the election laws: at least 10 people are allowed to observe at each station. But like many Burmese, I felt nervous to identify myself in front of plainclothes military intelligence. They would know my name and address and they could come for me at anytime.

I took a deep breath and went ahead.

Although the international community had already condemned these elections as a sham, I expected the voting process to be free and fair, at least on Election Day, just to put forth a good image to diplomats and local media.

A policeman and local official stood near the entrance. "Oh, you guys are late," the official said warmly. Just 15 minutes before, a car with a loudspeakers reminded people to come to the station before it closed.

Two stations were set up in two separate classrooms, and my station had more than a dozen staff – mostly women – and other men in normal clothes.

The whole process made me dizzy: registering my name, getting the ballots, casting a vote three times for three houses of parliament. My friends are Karen and had to cast a fourth ballot for an ethnic parliament.

The first ballot was brown and feature logos from five different parties: a bamboo hat, lion, rice stalks, a traditional drum and fighting peacock.

Two men pointed to the exit. Then I said, "I want to watch vote counting" and a girl from the last voting group raised her hand and said "I want to watch, too."

A woman in a white blouse and a man in plainclothes stared at me. "You need to ask permission from the commission," he said. Then I asked the head of the polling station, a school teacher, whose staff asked us to fill out a form with our ID numbers, names and addresses.

Three of us signed up to monitor, and we were joined by seven men from the local government body.

"You must stay until the counting is finished," an election official said. "You will be locked in from now on."

The counting started at 4:30 pm when ballots from the first box were put on a table

Women shouted winning names and put the ballots in separate baskets, one for each candidate. The winning party in the first count was from the National Democratic Force (NDF), one of the parties in the democracy alliance. One of the young girls with us smiled.

Her smile didn't last long.

When the local commission official asked a polling staff to bring a plastic bag with early votes, the girl whispered. 'Oh… that's a lot."

The women called out the names on the early ballots. This time, the name of the pro-regime Union Solidarity and Development Party candidate was repeated again and again. Two USDP representatives were happy. In the tally of early votes, the USDP won 91 votes out of 140 advanced ballots, or about 20 percent of the overall vote count.

The polling official showed a ballot marked with a tick in the box beside the bamboo hat logo, representing the pro-democracy NDF. "Here are two lines in the box, I discard it."

She threw out three ballots for the NDF.

After counting two boxes, I found clearly that advanced ballots stood strongly for the military's proxy party, which had a lion logo.

I complained at one vote when I saw two lines on a USDP ballot. The election official agreed to disqualify it. The commission member reminded me that it is a decision only she can make.

Vote counting took more than four hours and when it was over, the candidate from the opposition party, NDF, had defeated the USDP by 40 votes and had won the contest for a national parliament seat, at least in our voting district, with a total of 273 votes.

But the USDP defeated the NDF by just 14 votes for a seat in the lower house, or people's parliament.

The conservative party now known as the National Union Party, whose leaders used to support dictator Ne Win in the 1980s, edged the USDP by 10 votes.

Two ethnic parties entirely defeated the USDP.

It was clear that in this polling station, the USDP could not win a seat without the early votes.

This is just one of 118 stations in my township. I wonder how it would turn out in nearly 40,000 other polling stations across the country.

The day after the election, I found preliminary findings in a report for the 2010 elections conducted by an independent and politically neutral local association based in Burma.

The report found "advance voting is a serious concern" based on a survey of 175 observers from 159 polling stations. The report defined the way various advance votes were collected: Election Commission officials went door-to-door together with USDP members, set up ballot boxes in the middle of government offices, and visited industrial zones to sign up large numbers of workers.

The report also said that 30 percent of vote counting was not conducted in front of the public.

I was lucky I was allowed my right to observe. From my own experience at the polling station, it was pretty clear the military had sewn up a victory through these tactics.