Citizens of the Union of Myanmar, formerly and more commonly known as Burma, went to the polls on April 1 for crucial by-elections that have generated much attention.
The by-elections, to fill a few dozen seats in the 664-member parliament, elected leading democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi to the constituency of Kawhmu, sending the democracy activist into the lower house of parliament.
Kawhmu is a small, rural farming town with no paved roads, electricity or running water. It is just one of many impoverished towns that litter Myanmar.
Suu Kyi is a Nobel peace prize laureate who led the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990 elections, winning 59% of the votes.
The celebrations in 1990, however, were short-lived as the military government nullified the election and refused to hand over power. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. Over the past 21 years, she has spent 15 years in forced imprisonment.
When I travelled to Myanmar in late January, I was shocked at the situation.
The market stalls around Sule Pagoda in the heart of the capital, Yangon, were decorated with the red and gold of the NLD.
Nearly every stall sold photographs and shirts adorned with pictures and slogans of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Bogyoke Aung San, the communist and anti-colonial leader that fought for freedom for Burma from British occupation. Independence was won in 1948, just months after his assassination.
I travelled to the smaller towns of Nyaung U and Nyuang Shwe, where every hotel, shop and house I entered hung a photograph of Suu Kyi right near the door.
Just a few years earlier, people would not have been allowed to own photographs of Suu Kyi. Many were afraid to even utter her name in public for fear of being taken away.
The people of Myanmar want democracy, they love Aung San Suu Kyi and they have the same feelings toward Bogyoke Aung San as the Vietnamese do towards Ho Chi Minh, affectionately calling him “Bac”, meaning “Uncle”.
Despite Suu Kyi's win, she said the by-elections were not "free and fair". The government rejected an NLD candidate because his parents fled Myanmar and now reside in a foreign nation. At least two NLD candidates were attacked recently and there were "many, many cases of intimidation", Suu Kyi said.
Judging from the history of the junta, these could well have been state-sponsored attacks. When the regime released voter lists, the NLD and Suu Kyi cited many irregularities. The list included many people who had passed away. Many supporters of the NLD, including whole townships, were excluded.
The government, which invited officials from every nation to observe the elections, denied visa applications for the two Australian MPs — Labor’s Janelle Saffin and Liberal Mathias Cormann — without reason.
What will change in Myanmar now the NLD is in parliament? Probably not a lot. The events of recent months show the government does not want to hand over power, and is still using subversion and violence to protest its rule.
The military is still killing people in the Karen, Shan and Kachin states. It is still at war with the freedom fighters, even going so far as to burn down a rice storehouse, destroying the entire supply of a town’s staple food.
It is still abducting children, as young as 11, as cannon fodder in wars against its own people. The national army of Myanmar is reported to have up to 70,000 child soldiers.
Many of these were abducted from the same villages they are now forced to attack. If they refuse their orders, they can be charged with desertion, which carries a maximum penalty of death.
However, this does not mean the election results were unimportant. It was a monumental victory for democracy. Even if it will not bring in new policies from those in power, it is an important symbolic victory — it has filled the oppressed people of Myanmar with an inspiring sense of their power.
Just as with the “Arab Spring”, many people may change more on the inside than we first see.
The government and military of Myanmar are still committing tremendous and horrendous atrocities. Although the people now have more of a voice, the regime seems mainly interested in talk to impress foreign nations and media. It has opened Myanmar's borders to promote tourism, on the path of becoming a good, Westernised, capitalist nation.
But is tourism really what this developing country needs right now? When I arrived in Nyaung Shwe, men heated tar without any protection, young boys harvested rocks from the banks of an Inle Lake offshoot before the day-long back-breaking labour of crushing them with sledge-hammers in 40 degree heat.
Women and teenage girls were shovelling the crushed rocks onto the tar to create new roads to accommodate the boost in tourism.
I was shocked when I first arrived in Yangon (Rangoon) to see its open sewers, and the huge flocks of crows that seem to darken the skies wherever you go, seeking filth and decay.
As soon as the sun goes down, the streets are flooded with rats. And even as the stray dogs and rats wander through the dark alleys, children as young as five can be seen, with bare feet and dirty clothes, begging for whatever you can spare.
Perhaps what most shocked me was that even though people were toiling all day, living in poverty without running water or electricity, and are harshly oppressed under a totalitarian government, wherever you go, you are greeted with a smile.
If you stop for a minute to look at a map, five people will come and offer to help you.
The people of Myanmar, who have endured so much hardship, are perhaps the kindest and most generous I have ever met. And it is heart-breaking, because they deserve the most basic right of every human being. They deserve freedom.
Let us hope the changes being fought for are not denied to the people for much longer. One thing is for sure, things must change.