In the roadside teashops men in longyis sit on low stools. They talk over sweet milky tea and acrid cheroot cigarettes. These dusty cafes are the places where people come to talk, argue and listen.
Politics, for decades forbidden, can be discussed now, but the caution of a lifetime dies hard. Even now, in a nascent “democratic” Myanmar, Sunday's election is discussed only obliquely, in low tones, and with a cautious glance at those around.
In Myanmar, one never knows who is listening. “Out here, we are the three wise monkeys. We hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil,” the elderly teashop owner says in perfect English. “Come to the back. We are among friends there.”
This is Moulmein, a port town and the colonial-era capital of Myanmar's Mon state, on the south-eastern Andaman coast.
Here, the election exists in subtle references to unreliable electricity, untraceable taxes, unremitting poverty. But to talk openly of politics, to post a sign, to wear a T-shirt, is to invite trouble.
U Thein Htun is sitting in the teashop's back room. The election will change nothing for the people, he says. “They don't like the government, but they are too worried about having enough food to eat, enough money for their family. The election means nothing. We already know who will win.”
U Thein Htun wants a boycott of the elections. He says that to see empty ballot boxes being returned would show the world the elections are a sham designed to entrench the military rule that dominates every aspect of life in Myanmar.
“But if you do not take your vote, the government will take it for you,” U Soe Lwin interjects. “They will fill your vote for you, and vote for themselves. The election is bad, but it is all we have. It is a small step towards democracy. People must vote, and tell the government they are doing a bad thing for the people.”
Days away from the first democratic opportunity of their lives, others are still undecided. “I don't think my vote will make any difference,” one man says. “The generals will change their uniforms, but they will not change the country.”
About the only thing on which there is agreement in this election is the result. The military junta's Union Solidarity and Development party will win.
Headed by the current prime minister, Thein Sein, who has resigned his military commission to contest the election, the junta's party will field 1,112 candidates in 1,158 seats, at local, provincial and national level.
The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, will field 163. The junta's party has already won 52 seats simply because its candidate is the only one nominated.
The government has bankrolled its campaign by selling state assets to cronies for millions of dollars. Scores of opposition candidates have had to abandon their campaigns because they cannot afford to run. The nomination fee of more than £300 is several months’ wages to most Burmese.
The junta is also doing everything in its power to ensure it is only Burmese who will see what happens in the election. It has refused to allow independent election monitors or foreign journalists into the country to watch the poll. Those who have managed to get in, along with aid workers and any foreigners inside the country, are being closely watched, photographed in the street, and followed.
For most of the past fortnight, the internet in the country has been almost completely shut down. Landlines to the outside world have been cut and the sale of mobile phone sim cards has been outlawed.
Millions of Burmese have been excluded from the election too. Across huge swaths of the country, there will be no voting.
Politics in Myanmar is indivisible from ethnicity, and parts of the country controlled by ethnic rebel armies, including nearly half of Mon state, have been declared “black areas” by the government, deemed unsafe to hold a poll.
Like the Shan, the Karen, the Wa and others, the Mon people who live in this part of Myanmar are an ethnic minority, with a separate culture, language and identity. They have been resisting the junta's brutal rule and campaigning for autonomy for generations.
The junta has responded by driving the Mon and other ethnic groups from their homes, razing villages, murdering those who resist or cannot flee, and forcing tens of thousands into refugee camps.
A rebel Mon National Liberation Army soldier soldier says Myanmar's national flag was changed two weeks ago from one
featuring 14 stars — representing the seven provinces of Myanmar and the seven major ethnic groups — to a green, red and yellow striped standard with a single white star.
In a country where election dates are set and decisions to build a new capital city are taken on the advice of astrologers, the star is significant.
“It means they want one Myanmar, one people. They want only [ethnic] Burmese in this country. They want to kill people … who are not the same. They want to wipe us out.”
In a hotel room in Moulmein, we meet U Nai Nwe, spokesman for the All Mon Regions Democracy party. That the government will win the election is beyond doubt, he says. It has stacked the odds so carefully and completely in its favour that no other result is possible.
But he says that people must participate to give themselves a voice.
Graphic : The symbol of democracy