Sammy Samuels makes frequent appearances in stories about Myanmar’s small Jewish community. He is, after all, one of the last Jews here. Since his father died in May, he has taken full responsibility over the preservation of Yangon’s only synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua.
Since this is a story about Myanmar and Myanmar’s small Jewish community, allow me to introduce you to Aung Soe Lwin. This is Sammy Samuels’s Burmese name and it’s the title he used to vote in Myanmar’s historic democratic general elections on Sunday, the freest in a quarter century. It was the first time Samuels, 33, has ever been able to cast a ballot in his home country.
“I’ve been feeling so excited since last night,” he said. “[I] couldn’t even sleep.”
After he voted, the tip of his pinky finger was freshly stained with indelible purple ink. “I’m hoping for the positive outcome,” he said. “I think it will be a great chance for the country to move forward.”
Samuels was unable to vote in a 2012 by-election because his area had no candidates. In 2010, he didn’t bother because he thought the elections would be unfair. They were. The vote before that was in 1990, when he was too young to take part.
On Sunday, around 9:30 a.m., a few hours after voting started, Samuels was with his family at the polling station on 31st street. They are just part of a Jewish community that today numbers around 10.
Myanmar has more than 30 million eligible voters and a long list of seemingly intractable problems, such as accusations of voter fraud, and a parliament that allocates 25 percent of its seats to unelected members of the military. The election, though billed as the most credible in decades, has been deeply problematic, with voting being cancelled in areas where ethnic insurgencies simmer; Muslims face disenfranchisement and hostile Buddhist groups.
Size-wise, the “Jewish vote” in Myanmar doesn’t carry much weight, but it still matters: a vote says you belong.
“Even though we are the smallest minority in this country, being able to vote as a citizen… that is tremendous,” said Samuels. “We are very proud of that.”
And it will matter. Sammy, after all, voted for the National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. His support could help the NLD come to power—an outcome that looks likely, reportedly a landslide.
The Jewish community in what was then known as Burma flourished from the late 19th century through World War II, once boasting a population of about 2,500. In that time, some Jews embraced politics. Before it was called Yangon, Rangoon had a Jewish mayor, as did a town called Pathein.
As we talked, Samuels and I stood in a part of Yangon that is still diverse with various religions woven into its fabric. His synagogue is a few blocks to the west. A pagoda is two blocks in the opposite direction. Samuels’s father, Moses, used to walk these streets, where colonial and religious architecture abound. The polling station we were standing in front of had a date over the front of its entranceway: 1923.
His father, Moses, would have liked this. “His spirit will be watching us and enjoying what we are doing.”
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Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.