Here in Yangon, Myanmar, the nervous excitement surrounding the historic election that were held this month has pervaded every facet of life. As PATH forges ahead with our projects to improve health and nutrition, we are closely monitoring the developments and anticipating how they might impact our work.
Essentially, this is the first real election after 50 years of military rule. It’s a big deal. Since August, we have been witnessing a frenzy of campaign activity—rallies, loud music, men like these from the ruling party “door knocking” American style, and trishaw drivers proudly displaying their red National League for Democracy T-shirts and flags.
Then, on Saturday, November 7, the streets fell silent, no further campaigning allowed. On Election Day, Sunday, November 8, people started lining up before dawn to vote. The absence of Yangon’s notorious traffic was surreal. By mid-day, portraits of voters proudly displaying their pinky fingers dipped in ink bloomed like wild flowers on social media.
On Monday, the day after the election, we closed the PATH office as a precaution, waiting to see how things would unfold. Other than a fierce rain storm and city-wide power outage there were no major conflicts or disruptions. We sighed in relief. International observers declared the elections largely free and fair.
Results filtering out over the past week show a landslide for the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While it is now clear that her party will have enough seats to constitute a majority in parliament, the installation of a new government and selection of a new president and vice-presidents will take several months.
The big question now is whether there will be a peaceful transition of power. Aung San Suu Kyi is calling for national reconciliation. While she is barred by the constitution from becoming president, she has said she will “be above the president” and call the shots until the constitution is amended.
As historic events unfold around us, PATH staff remain laser-focused on our work to improve health. Next month, we will launch fortified rice. By infusing vitamins and minerals into Myanmar’s staple food we aim to reduce widespread micronutrient deficiencies. Next month, this new product will be endorsed by the Minister of Health and soon after be on the shelves in local markets and distributed through social safety net programs to people with HIV and tuberculosis.
Myanmar is benefiting greatly from the influx of international development funding flowing to the country since they first opened their doors to the outside world in 2011. However the dust settles, we foresee a continued embrace of these partnerships. They are part of a broader engagement with the international community that has fueled unprecedented economic growth. While the names of the government ministers we work with will change, our basic ability to be here and to make a difference will not.
Many are predicting that donor countries such as the US and the UK will respond to a peaceful transition of power in Myanmar with increased aid funding. People here are hopeful, and that new leaders will focus more on issues that matter most for their families, such as education and health. And PATH is ready.
Since 2012, we have been forging relationships and building capacity in the nutrition sector and beyond. We have a strong foothold and we are prepared to do more―ready to help the government introduce new lifesaving vaccines, expand access to family planning, and introduce new systems and technologies to screen for and treat widespread disease. This election marks an exciting new window of opportunity to get this work done.
- Ingrid McDonald was formerly a program adviser for the Mekong Regional Program at PATH.