Myanmar sees the dawn of the opinion poll

Lucile Andre
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Cowed by decades of brutal army rule, Myanmar's population is not used to openly voicing opinions

Voters cast their ballot papers during parliamentary by-elections at a polling station in Kawhmu on April 1. As a taboo on Myanmar political discussion wanes, pollsters are stepping up to take the pulse of the nation

Cowed by decades of brutal army rule, Myanmar's population is not used to openly voicing opinions, but as a taboo on political discussion wanes pollsters are stepping up to take the pulse of the nation.

For the public, being confronted by questions such as "Are you satisfied with healthcare?", "What do you think of the president's stand on rights?" or "Are you worried about corruption?" is a new experience.

What may seem like ordinary opinion poll questions were unthinkable until recently in Myanmar, where a repressive near half-century of military rule asphyxiated public debate.

Laws that have stifled free speech are starting to loosen in the country also known as Burma, amid widespread reforms by a new regime that have included welcoming democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament for the first time.

But taking the political temperature is no straightforward matter in a country where many still fear repercussions for dissent.

"Of course, at the beginning, people are very scared, they don't want to answer, they think politics is something like a taboo, you cannot touch it," said Win Myo Thu, who heads the website of fledgling pollsters Myanmar Affairs.

He launched the first polls just before controversial elections in 2010 that were criticised as a sham by the West and saw the army and its political proxies sweep to power.

But deep political sensitivities meant the first attempt at gauging public opinion was aborted.

"We could not even ask if they would go vote," Win Myo Thu told AFP.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the election because of rules seemed designed to exclude the democracy icon, who was under house arrest at the time.

Any suggestion that people would not cast their ballots could be viewed as a gesture of support for the party, the very mention of which was considered risky.

"In a country under military rule or dictatorship, it is very difficult for people to express their political opinion without being intimidated," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, researcher at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University.

"But Burma is opening up and people are more or less willing to tell what they think," he added.

Myanmar's junta officially relinquished power in March 2011, handing the reins to a quasi-civilian legislature that was joined by Suu Kyi and other members of her party who were elected in landmark April 1 elections.

But fifty years of oppression cannot be erased in a day and pollsters face numerous hurdles, including a lack of basic recent data about the Myanmar population -- estimated to be somewhere between 50 and 60 million people -- that hampers reliability.

The United Nations agreed in April to help Myanmar conduct its first census since 1983, but the operation will not begin until 2014 and is likely to be a complex endeavour, with regional unrest and poor infrastructure in remote areas potentially slowing the process.

"The lack of a census generally means you do not yet have a baseline population from which to sample from," said Thomas Scotto, Associate Dean of the Graduate School Department of Government at Britain's University of Essex.

"Hence, I would be wary of using a poll to infer that 'the population on Myanmar' feels this or that way."

It is a point readily conceded by Win Myo Thu, who predicted that the NLD would win 30 of the 44 seats it contested in the April 1 by-elections -- instead it won 43.

The country's burgeoning media also attempted to carry out its own polls in the run up to the vote.

"Our hypothesis is, by conducting opinion polls, at least you foster the political culture in the society, it stimulates the political awareness among the public," said Win Myo Thu, who says he is prepared to share polling technology with others.

He believes that the exercise helps elected officials and civil servants to learn more about the needs of a general public neglected for decades by the country's military rulers.

Certain topics remain extremely sensitive -- particularly the role of the powerful army in the country's political life.

"'Do you think the military still pulls the strings behind the scenes?' I think this kind of question might be too sensitive," said Pavin, predicting that pollsters themselves may be reticent about tackling such difficult issues.

But the most sensitive subjects are not necessarily the most obviously risky.

Win Myo Thu said he would love to ask people about their levels of satisfaction with Suu Kyi herself, as he did for President Thein Sein.

But "we are afraid that if something comes up negatively, all the Aung San Suu Kyi supporters will attack us."