Tea shops were once among the few places in Burma during the country’s repressive regime where neighbors could gather and talk in relative freedom about current events.

Htet Myet Oo, 25, a young Burmese restaurateur who returned to his home country from England in 2012, says he wanted to evoke that ethos when he opened the chic Rangoon Tea House in the country’s commercial capital last year.

His upscale customers still order the fragrant rice noodle and fish soup called mohinga served in traditional tea houses — a Burmese specialty — but now it is made with “locally sourced” ingredients and paired with chilled white wine.

Five years after Burma’s military junta began the process of democratic reforms, the Southeast Asian nation of 51 million, once cut off from the world, is undergoing rapid-fire change. Just a few years ago, for example, the country had a cellphone penetration that rivaled that of North Korea as one of the lowest in the world. Now it’s 50 percent.

Htet Myet Oo is among the many young Burmese educated in the West who have flooded back to Rangoon with high hopes for their country and its uncertain march toward democracy.

Owner Htet Myet Oo behind the bar at The Rangoon Tea House in Burma. (Annie Gowen/The Washington Post)

“The euphoria of opening up resonated with everybody,” said Htet Myet Oo, who left Burma at age 4 when his parents, both doctors, took jobs in a town in the north of England. Early on, he said, “there was a lot of adrenaline.”

But with voters headed to the polls Sunday in a landmark election that some say is a test of democracy, he said, the prevailing emotions are hope — and anxiety. Nobody in this former colonial capital — that still retains its languid charm despite blaring horns and the buzz of construction — knows what’s going to happen, he said.

Will the National League for Democracy party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered pro-
democracy leader, win a majority to govern? Or will power remain with the president, Thein Sein, a former general, and his military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party? The election has been called “free-ish” rather than free because of ongoing concerns over faulty voter registration rolls, the suspension of voting in areas with ethnic clashes and the fact that the country’s estimated 1 million Rohingya Muslims, who lack citizenship, will not be permitted to vote.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, won independence from Britain in 1948, but more than half a century of military rule left the country isolated and impoverished. The generals took off their uniforms and began instituting some democratic reforms in 2010, relaxing censorship and freeing political prisoners.

The United States and other countries eased sanctions and Burma opened its doors to foreign investment — an estimated $7 billion to $8 billion has flowed into the country since then.

Rapid modernization followed, largely in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, and the country’s capital. ATMs and decent WiFi arrived. Facebook grew to 6 million users. Luxury auto dealers like Mercedes and Land Rover opened showrooms. Supermarkets and malls sprouted, as did art galleries and boutiques. Just this summer the American fast-food chain KFC opened its flagship store in Rangoon — with two-story cathedral windows.

The pace of change is sometimes mind-boggling: In 2012 there were 70,000 cars on Rangoon roads, according one estimate; now there are close to 400,000.

“Half of their drivers have gotten their license in the last two years, so half the cars don’t know what they’re doing on the road,” said May Thu Khine, an executive assistant at the company that franchised KFC in Burma.

May Thu Khine, 27, was born and raised in Rangoon but left to attend Davidson College in North Carolina, where she graduated with a degree in political science in 2011. Drawn by the promise of a new Burma, she returned the following year and now spends her free time after work writing about her adventures on her blog, An Edible Woman: Tiptoeing Life in Yangon.

She has written about attending food festivals and Shakespeare plays that would have been unheard of during military rule, but her chronicles took a darker turn earlier this summer when one of the governing party’s top leaders was unceremoniously purged.

“At the end of a day like this, confusion and uncertainty cloud people’s minds,” she wrote. “What’s going to happen? Will we go back in time?”

These returnees are keenly aware they are the minority among their peers, many of whom have struggled to find jobs after graduating from universities that were neglected for years. And outside the urban centers, most Burmese remained mired in poverty and working agricultural jobs, with a per-
capita income of about $1,200 a year, according to the World Bank.

“Burma has to do a lot to catch up, and we are not doing enough,” said Htet Myat 25, who graduated from Oberlin College in 2013 and returned to Burma to work for a group of clothing stores.

On Saturday night, Htet Myet Oo was behind the bar at the busy Rangoon Tea House mixing drinks. Behind him on the wall flickered old Burmese movies from the 1960s and ’70s that are difficult to find, he said, and he has had to cajole the clips from friends and acquaintances. He was planning to get up early at 5 a.m. to take his grandparents to the historic vote, then open his shop all day to distribute free tea to voters as part of the celebration.

“We can all feel we are on the brink of something,” he said. “We’re not sure what we’re on the brink of, but it’s something.”

Wai Phyo Maung contributed to this report.

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