Akshan de Alwis is a sophomore at the Noble and Greenough School
I visited Myanmar in March, during a time of historic change: the runup to a by-election that features Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Price winner released from 20 years of house arrest 18 months ago.
The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party she leads, are competing for 48 of 664 seats in parliament in Sunday's election.
On March 13, Suu Kyi addressed a transfixed nation in her first televised broadcast since she was arrested. For many, this was the first time they had heard her speak.
I met with several enthusiastic democracy activists -- who still refer to Myanmar by its former name, Burma -- who rejoiced that their beloved “national hero” called for the military members of parliament to step down. Currently, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military.
Ms. Soe and Ms. Pyae Phyo are excited about Suu Kyi's argument that such a parliament, consisting of unelected representatives, is not a democracy.
They are cautiously optimistic about Suu Kyi’s call for strengthening the twin pillars of democracy: increased rule of law, and an independent judiciary.
The military has ruled for decades, despite the fact that the National League of Democracy (NLD) had won 82 percent of the vote in the 1990 election.
Two years earlier, the country had been consumed by protests calling for the end of military rule under Ne Win.
Capitulating to the calls for free elections, countrywide polling was held in 1990.
Leading up to the election, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, charged with threatening national security.
The military ignored the NLD's landslide victory and student leaders of the 1988 rebellion were either forced into exile, spending the next few decades in India or Thailand, tortured, or imprisoned.
Ms. Shwe recounted that in a recent meeting with the president and the leader of parliament, Suu Kyi was told that if she were to be elected to parliament, she would have to remain in Naypyidaw, the parliamentary complex, when parliament is in session. Dr. Nyo Nyo Thin, an opposition member of parliament, said she would like Suu Kyi to have the freedom to reach out to the people, rather than being sequestered.
Myanmar is slowly inching toward democracy. Those I spoke to predicted that Suu Kyi will easily win in the Kawhmu district and if the election is free and fair, the NLD will win in a landslide.
But a young banker-turned-activist said she feared that "ghost votes" might mar the election.
Ms. Soe, an advocate for nation building, is hopeful that the ruling junta will allow Suu Kyi her rightful place in parliament denied to her for over two decades. But many fear that she will not have the power to pass legislation necessary to move the country toward real democratic change.
While the government's decision to allow a small by-election hints to the international community that the junta is ready for change, Ms. Soe warned, "Things have changed from the outside but remain the same from the inside.”
Under the guise of change and development, she said that people are being forcibly evicted from their land. She said that government officials are appropriating land from private citizens at a fraction of its value and selling it at inflated prices to developers.
Ms. Soe introduced me to Daw Dr. May Win Myint, who is a central executive committee member of the NLD party. Win, along with Suu Kyi, are the only two women on the committee. She heads the women’s wing of the NLD.
A medical doctor who was part of the 1988 insurrection, she was rearrested in 1997 for trying to meet with Suu Kyi. She had her hands broken and was imprisoned for more than 11 years.
She said that despite concerns about the legitimacy of recent reforms, the NLD must be a forceful presence in parliament.
She said that the NLD’s vision is founded on three pillars: national reconciliation, justice for all, and a referendum to amend the constitution.
“This is an urgent call to reform a constitution that reserves 25 percent of the seats in the parliament for the military,'' she said.
Despite years of imprisonment that saw some of her comrades die in jail, Win, like her friend and leader, Suu Kyi, remains inspired by the promise of democracy and is determined to transform her beloved country.
Ms. Soe, whom I now call Ma (or big sister), has invited me to return to meet with Myanmar's youth groups, long isolated from young people around the world.
A former banker with Citibank in Singapore, she returned to Myanmar, eager to be part of this first wave of civic engagement.
At Citibank she worked in a culture where "the bank never sleeps," chuckling that she brings that same perspective to her work here. “Surely," she said, pointing to the small sofa in her office where she snatches two hours of sleep a night, "I cannot sleep while Burma struggles to awake."
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