Why the right to vote is my privilege

Election day in Latvia is coming to an end… the important part is behind us but the interesting part is still ahead. The polling booths have closed. Now all is left is to wait for the results.

I have bittersweet feelings. While voting today at the nearby polling station, I was thinking about my 95 year old grandmother who stayed at home and was not able to cast her vote. Not able because of the advanced dementia. I knew that I probably could find her passport, dress her, walk down the stairs, stand in line and help her to do the talking, registering and voting. Yet somehow it did not feel right (and probably not even legal) since the person is so confused that they cannot make their own decisions anymore. I did not want to “use” my grandmother to get her to vote for the party I chose to support.

So, I voted for both of us. I mean, I felt double responsibility. My grandmother has lived a long life and she has given a lot for me and others to have the best life we can. She has risked her life in the years when it was not allowed to have your own political views not matching the Communist party. She aided the Latvian underground resistance groups after WWII which meant to live in hiding for few years when she was found out. Later she became a devout Christian and joined a Baptist church at a time when religious people were persecuted. My grandmother was not perfect and we have disagreed on many issues but I  always knew that she is courageous and passionate. She was not one to just stand by.

And I don’t want to stand by either. Latvia is a free and democratic country with its own challenges and faults and there is plenty to improve. Nevertheless, the life here has never been so peaceful, stable and secure. And the right and the responsibility to vote and participate in the present and future of this nation is not something to take lightly. I know that it sounds very cliche but there are many countries around the world where ordinary citizens don’t get to decide. For them my life and freedom is a dream.

For many years I lived in Thailand where for the first time in my life I experienced a military coup in 2014. And the country still has not had free elections and there is no sign of a change. People with military background now have 143 seats of 250 member parliament in Thailand. So, it is very easy for me to compare and to know what kind of “democracy” I don’t want. It is “peace and order” by might.

Yes, we have the ugly side of our democracy and every election year highlights the usual problems – the examples of corruption, the lack of transparency, mutual respect, wise compromise, norms of civility, problems with lobbies and shady money, etc. And we get the expected response from voters  – from protest votes for populists to apathy and those who don’t even bother. But I believe that many of our negative responses and attitudes come from not counting our blessings.

Today I voted. My grandmother will be proud of me. Just as I am proud of her. The Latvia she dreamed off is mine to nurture, to protect and to cherish.

Freedom from fear in Myanmar

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” This conviction by Aung Sun Suu Kyi, a Burmese leader and former political prisoner, highlights an important truth. It also describes a life that is lived in a non-violent and courageous resistance to this kind of fear.

Last week Myanmar (Burma) held first democratic elections in 25 years. The votes are still being counted but it is already clear that the National League for Democracy (NLD) has won an overwhelming majority. Estimated 70% of the votes. The people have chosen and now the world is watching whether the military rulers will respect their own people’s will.

I am rejoicing together with my friends. They have been waiting for this day for a very long time… I have been waiting for this for many years, too. Ever since my husband and I started working on Thai-Burma border helping refugees from Burma, we have believed together with our friends that one day they will be able to return home, that one day their nation will be truly free.

There is lots of joy but also awareness that there is still a long and hard road ahead. The government cannot be fully democratic while 25% of the seats in the national parliament are reserved for the military and the military appoints three government ministers.  The most popular national leader to become a president would be Aung Sun Suu Kyi, but it is not possible under the current Constitution. It disqualifies anyone whose children have foreign citizenship and Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s sons have British passports because she had a British husband.

Also, there were millions of people who were not able to vote – people who live in areas where there is still armed conflict, internally displaced persons, refugees in the camps on Thailand/Burma border, migrants working in other countries, the Rohingya ethnic group…

Sill, this is an amazing and big step towards long-awaited freedom and peace. The elections were peaceful and the results make a very loud and clear statement what kind of country people want to live in. My memory flashes back to 1990 when in my own nation, Latvia, we celebrated a similar moment when the parliament voted to reinstate the independence of Latvia. My grandparents had waited for 50 years. Honestly it did not seem possible that we would experience it in our life-time, but the ‘miracle’ happened.

Then began the process of learning to live in freedom and there were many many challenges. Latvia is still dealing with some of the residue from our Soviet past. When you are not used to being free, you have to learn to be free. Physical freedom does not mean automatically a psychological and emotional and spiritual freedom where you have peace with yourself and your neighbor.

When I exchange stories with our friends from Burma, I realize that I experience an amazing journey together with my nation. Journey of hope and dream that became reality, journey of freedom from fear… Now I watch my friends making the same kind of journey and I want to help them in any way I can. This is just the start and now the real work of developing, re-building, healing and transforming begins. But today is the day of celebration!

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Latviski:

“Nevis vara mūs samaitā, bet bailes. Bailes pazaudēt varu samaitā tos, kuriem tā pieder, un bailes no varas posta samaitā tos, kuri tai pakļauti.” Tā domā un saka Aung San Su Či, politiķe, opozīcijas vadītāja un bijusī politieslodzītā Mjanmā (Birmā). Šajos vārdos ir izteikta kāda svarīga patiesība. Un savā dzīvē viņa pati ir turējusies pie šīs pārliecības, izrādot nevardarbīgu pretestību šādām bailēm.

Pagājšnedēļ Birmā notika pirmās demokrātiskās vēlēšanas pēc 25 gadu ‘pārtraukuma’. Balsis vēl tiek skaitītas, bet jau ir pilnīgi skaidrs, ka Nacionālā Demokrātijas Līga ir guvusi pārliecinošu uzvaru. Tiek prognozēts vismaz 70% atbalsts. Cilvēki ir izdarījuši savu izvēli, un tagad visa pasaule gaida un vēro, vai militārā vara cienīs savas tautas gribu.

Es priecājos kopā ar saviem draugiem. Viņi ir gaidījuši šo dienu ļoti, ļoti ilgi… Arī es to gaidu jau daudzus gadus. Kopš mēs ar vīru sākām strādāt uz Taizemes – Birmas robežas un palīdzēt bēgļiem no Birmas, mēs ticam kopā ar saviem draugiem, ka kādu dienu viņi varēs atgriezties mājās, ka kādu dienu viņu valsts būs patiesi brīva.

Ir liels prieks, bet arī skaidra apziņa, ka priekšā garš un grūts ceļš ejams. Valdība un valsts nevar būt pilnīgi demokrātiska, kamēr militārajiem spēkiem ir atvēlētas 25% vietas parlamentā, un garantēti trīs ministru posteņi. Vispopulārākais kandidāts nākamajam Birmas prezidentam ir Aung San Su Či, bet, saskaņā ar patreizējo konstitūciju, viņa nevar ieņemt šo amatu. Tādēļ, ka prezidentam nedrīkst būt bērni ar citas valsts pilsonību, bet Su Či dēliem ir britu pases, jo viņas vīrs bija Lielbritānijas pilsonis. (Šis likums tika pieņemts tieši tādēļ, lai viņa nevarētu kļūt par prezidentu.)

Vēl viena liela problēma ir fakts, ka vēlēšanās nevarēja piedalīties vairāki miljoni cilvēku. Tie, kuri dzīvo karadarbības zonās; tie, kuri ir bēgļu gaitās gan iekšzemē, gan citās zemēs; tie, kuri strādā ārpus Birmas; Rohinga mazākumtautības cilvēki, jo tiem vispār netiek piešķirta pilsonība.

Tomēr šis ir milzīgs un liels solis uz ilgi gaidīto brīvību un mieru. Vēlēšanas noritēja mierīgi, un rezultāti ļoti skaidri un gaiši pasaka, kādā valstī cilvēki vēlas dzīvot. Atceros 1990. gadu, kad mēs Latvijā svinējām Neatkarības atjaunošanas deklarāciju. Mūsu vecvecāki un vecāki bija to gaidījuši 50 gadus. Daudzi neticēja, ka kaut ko tādu piedzīvosim savas dzīves laikā, bet notika ‘brīnums’.

Tad sākās grūtais un sarežģītais process mācīties dzīvot brīvībā. Latvijā joprojām mēs izjūtam PSRS laika un sistēmas sekas. Kad ilgu laiku nav piedzīvota brīvība, to jāmācās no jauna. Fiziska brīvība vēl nenozīmē psiholoģisku, emocionālu un garīgu brīvību, kad mēs mākam mīlēt sevi pašu un savus līdzcilvēkus.

Sarunās ar draugiem no Birmas, es arvien vairāk sāku aptvert, cik apbrīnojams ceļš iets kopā ar manu tautu Latvijā. Ceļš no cerībām un sapņiem uz realitāti, ceļš uz brīvību no bailēm… Tagad mani draugi iet šo pašu ceļu, un es vēlos viņus atbalstīt, kā vien varu. Ir pats sākums lielajam darbam, lai atjaunotu, dziedinātu, pārveidotu un attīstītu valsti, bet šodien ir diena priekam un līksmībai!