All eyes are turned on Myanmar, as what has been billed the nation’s first free and fair election in 25 years will take place on Nov. 8. The south-east Asian nation was under British colonial rule from 1824–1948. Formerly called Burma, Myanmar enjoyed independence until 1962 when the military took power through a coup and brutally ruled the nation until 2011, suppressing almost all dissent and wielding absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.
In 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in nearly 30 years and the National League for Democracy (NLD) party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won a thumping 80% of seats, but the military refused to step down. The first general election in 20 years was held in 2010, which the junta touted as an important step in the transition to a civilian democracy, though opposition groups condemned it as a sham. The international community is closely watching the upcoming November election as a major landmark that will determine the pace and scope of Myanmar’s democratic reforms that began when a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein - who served as a general and then prime minister under the junta - was installed in March 2011. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) of Myanmar, is expected to be trounced by Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD. However, since the country began opening up, ethnic, religious and social tensions have been roiling the country.
The upcoming general election is also of utmost importance for the Catholic Church that has been in the land for over 500 years. Today, the Church in Myanmar consists of 16 dioceses with approximately 750 thousand faithful, making up just 1.3% of the total population, with a high concentration of ethnic minorities in the tribal areas. Myanmar’s first cardinal, Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Yangon has been expressing the concerns of the nation’s bishops regarding developments in the nation, including the Nov. 8 election. In an appeal released on Sept. 24, Cardinal Bo urged his countrymen to choose candidates and parties that promote a culture of democracy, human rights and reconciliation. He said voters need to make the forthcoming election a true exercise of democracy, which he described as "a long and arduous journey." "Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy," Cardinal Bo wrote in his appeal. "Please fulfill your sacred duty in this election. Please go to the booth. Vote for the right candidates of your choice." Days before his appeal, he told UCANEWS he wanted to urge people to vote because it was “a very important time for the country,” which he said, “needs to be changed." "The system that has been ruled by old elites didn't bring any change," Cardinal Bo said. "So people need to be aware of who will bring real change," he said.
Cardinal Charles Bo, who is currently participating in the world Synod of Bishops on the family, here in the Vatican, spoke to us about the Nov. 8 election. He first explained how crucial the election is for the nation.