comscore A poet's election victory speaks of a new Myanmar

A poet’s election victory speaks of a new Myanmar

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KYI DAUNG KAN, Myanmar >> It was the poet versus the soldier — and the poet won.

Of all the high drama surrounding the electoral triumph by the long-suppressed democracy movement in Myanmar, there was perhaps no victory as eloquent as the nail-biter won by Tin Thit, a poet and former political prisoner.

Tin Thit defeated one of the most powerful candidates on the ballot, a former general who until a few months ago was the minister of defense.

Tin Thit’s election was part of the landslide victory last Sunday by the National League for Democracy, the party led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The party won 387 seats in parliament, compared with just 42 for the military-backed governing party, according to results announced Saturday.

"The ballot is stronger than the bullet," said Tin Thit, sitting in the cavernous ocher colonial building that a local landlord offered to use as his campaign headquarters.

There were hundreds of upsets of powerful people in the elections, but Tin Thit’s seemed especially improbable. The district, which is part of the capital, Naypyidaw, has more than 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 police officers listed as residents. They seemed the natural constituents of Wai Lwin, the former defense minister.

And for the most part they were. But as the votes were counted last Sunday night, Tin Thit noticed an encouraging trend at polling places outside the military and police barracks. Several hundred had broken ranks, giving him a razor-thin margin of victory. Tin Thit received 27,321 votes, just 176 more than the general.

That was not the end of the story. A Florida-style dispute ensued, and a test of electoral integrity in a country with a long history of rigged elections. The general, who had served in the military with the head of the election commission, demanded a recount.

Tin Thit feared the worst. He received help from two lawyers who argued that the country’s electoral laws did not allow for a recount unless there was a tie.

Hours went by. It seemed that the election commission might order a recount. Then it announced its decision: The result was final.

Poetic justice.

It has been a long road from prison to parliament for Tin Thit, 49, who also goes by the name Yi Mon. He was halfway through medical school in 1988 when the country rose up against the military. He joined the campaign for democracy, and like thousands of other student activists he was locked up, spending seven years in the country’s primitive jails.

He is no starry-eyed romantic. He spent the past few years as an environmental activist, and has studied better uses for the country’s vast natural resources.

But he has a way with words.

The reason voters chose him over the general?

"Human dignity had been lost for 50 years," he said. "They wanted it back."

Nationwide, there were more than 10 poets registered as candidates for the National League for Democracy.

The leadership of the party chose a very diverse slate of candidates. Among them were 54 farmers, 22 teachers, 43 shopkeepers, 33 doctors, 4 tailors, 4 unemployed people, 2 newspaper deliverymen, a fisherman, a day laborer, an ice factory owner, a goldsmith and a painter.

Only 13 party candidates listed politician as their profession.

Tin Thit said the notion of a poet-turned-politician was not as unexpected as it might sound.

There is a strong connection between poetry and politics in Myanmar. Poetry was a necessity during the five decades of military rule, when the junta censored everything published in the country, even the phone book.

"We had to write poetry to obscure the meaning of what we were saying," he said.

The current government, which is led by former generals, abolished censorship soon after coming to power in 2011.

But Tin Thit still often feels the urge to write verse, which he posts to his Facebook page.

His most recent poem, "Democracy Wish," was written during the election campaign:


The moon is all alone

It’s so alluring and making me dizzy,

I wish all the rooftops would light up with the full moon’s brightness.

But I do not need to pray because my wish is already granted.

Tin Thit’s district was once surrounded by sugar cane fields and rice paddies.

But when Naypyidaw was built a decade ago, the government seized farmland and kicked out farming families. Those farmers are among Tin Thit’s constituents, and they look to the opposition for help in resolving their claims.

As Tin Thit walked through his district late last week, residents yelled out to congratulate him. Women selling vegetables by the side of the road beamed. A construction worker approached on a motor scooter, stopped abruptly and reached out to embrace Tin Thit. As the worker offered his congratulations, a tear formed in his left eye and rolled over his cheekbone. He had he learned about Tin Thit’s victory the day before.

"Until yesterday I did not know what happiness was," he said. "I was so happy that my vote mattered."

Like most people in much of Myanmar, the residents of Tin Thit’s district view poverty as their main concern. Tin Thit estimates that 40 percent of the residents are jobless or underemployed.

Penury, however, is not a problem for Wai Lwin, the former defense minister. He lives in a three-story, whitewashed villa in a compound of similar luxury homes. The property is surrounded by a high wall and a metal gate with coiled razor wire running around the top of both. A Toyota Land Cruiser sits in the driveway.

In an interview, Wai Lwin said he was sad that he had lost, but he conceded defeat. He confirmed that he had asked for a recount, but said he had never directly contacted the head of the election commission.

"I’m not angry," he said. "They refused my request based on the law."

He carried two cellphones and wore what appeared to be a Rolex watch and a gold ring set with a large sapphire surrounded with diamonds.

"I think I got almost all the votes from soldiers and police," he said. "I just lost the people’s vote."

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