Business is brisk at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s opposition party, on the afternoon of 30 March. By-elections are two days away—the first test of the NLD’s hold over Myanmar’s masses since 1990, the year the party won an overwhelming majority in nationwide elections which the ruling military regime refused to recognize.
In the time that followed, thousands of party activists, including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, have spent years in jail. But there is no time to wallow in self-pity; volunteers are busy wrapping T-shirts, key chains, posters, calendars, mugs and other memorabilia for eager customers—Burmese and foreigners. The mood is cheerful and optimistic as party workers issue instructions, hand out lunch packets, and smile for photographers. Large images of Suu Kyi and her father, Burma’s independence hero General Aung San, stare down at the happy commotion. A French journalist asks me what I think of the elections, and if I am an official observer. I say I am not, and suggest he speak to the Burmese instead.
The return: Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters outside the National League for Democracy headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar, a day after the by-elections. Photo: Reuters
Na looks too young to have voted in 1990, the last time Burma, as the country was then known, held free and fair elections. She lives in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, a township where electoral rolls had grown mysteriously, making the NLD suspicious that there could be foul play. Eventually, NLD’s candidate Phyu Phyu Thin won, but two days before the elections, Suu Kyi called a news conference where she complained of many irregularities. But this was an election where even the government didn’t want the NLD to do badly. The Hindu reported that electoral workers were saying they had orders not to cheat this time.
On Sunday, the street where the NLD office is located is a sea of humanity in red, the colour of NLD. Suu Kyi has won her seat, Kawhmu, a rural constituency ravaged by cyclone Nargis in 2008. The results from across the country are similar, as NLD officials first say they will win 20, then say 30, then 35, and finally, boldly proclaim they might win 40 of the 45 seats for which elections were held. Even in Naypyidaw, the purpose-built new capital where the residents comprise civil servants, the NLD is winning. Whichever way I turn, I see the NLD’s flag—red, with a star and a yellow peacock.
If women like Na vote for the NLD, it is for two reasons. One is the history Suu Kyi represents. Her father Aung San was a true independence hero, who manoeuvred his way to ensure Burma’s independence during World War II by first working with the Japanese to fight the British, and later, joining the British to roll back the Japanese. He was assassinated in 1947.
The other, more immediate, reason is her personal sacrifice. She lived in Britain with her husband and children, and came to Burma in 1988 to look after her ailing mother. Following her mother’s death, she stayed, because the country was going through tumultuous changes. Decades of socialist rule under General Ne Win was ending, and the government was opening up the economy. But there was no political change, and students were on the streets, demanding democratic freedoms. The nation was crying out for her to take leadership. She became the conscience of the troubled nation, and captured the imagination of everyone.
She was arrested, but her party won 392 of the 492 seats, securing 52% of the popular vote. The generals refused to give up power. They agreed to release her from jail if she promised to leave the country, never to return—she refused. She persisted, even when she learnt that her husband, the noted expert on Himalayan culture, Michael Aris, was dying of cancer. She never saw him again (he died in 1999).
In introducing her essays, “Freedom from Fear", Aris wrote: “She always used to say to me that if her people ever needed her, she would not fail them. As I re-read her old letters to me, I noted how again and again she expressed her worry that her family and people might misinterpret our marriage and see it as a lessening of her devotion to them. She constantly reminded me that one day, she would have to return to Burma, that she counted on my support at that time, not as her due, but as a favour."
It is difficult not to feel utterly moved by the devotion the people I met in Yangon showed towards her. “Those are real, tremendous sacrifices," a diplomat tells me. A taxi driver says he loves her, tears welling up in his eyes, pointing out her photograph, which he now feels confident enough to display on his windscreen. A former associate, who parted company with her over her uncompromising stance on calling for economic sanctions, says that while she disagrees with her, she loves her and respects her.
“The poor in this country know what she has gone through for their sake," the diplomat continues. By remaining in Myanmar in the face of having to make such gut-wrenching decisions, she has shown her strength, how unjustly she has been treated, and stressed to the people that she would never abandon them.
Even after winning the by-elections, she asked her followers to be dignified and restrained in their celebrations. That call for restraint is understandable; the road ahead for Suu Kyi remains long and won’t be easy. The NLD has less than 10% of the seats in Myanmar’s parliament, whose term ends only in 2015. Given the current constitution, which ensures the military’s dominance in parliament, the NLD will find it difficult to build the kind of majority needed to bring about political changes. To amend the constitution, the party will need the support not only of other opposition parties, but also members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.
While President Thein Sein deserves credit for making the necessary, bold moves to earn the trust of Suu Kyi, the ruling party has leaders unsure of the direction of the changes, which, if they take effect fully, will erode the party’s hold over government.
Then there are other problems of federalism. While the government has signed ceasefire agreements with several ethnic insurgencies, there haven’t been any comprehensive peace agreements, paving the path for normal development activities. The ethnic groups demand greater autonomy, a demand which the military has considered anathema. Balancing these forces will not be easy.
Meghna Guhathakurta, a Bangladeshi expert on peace and reconciliation who has worked on the Rohingya crisis between Bangladesh and Myanmar, says: “She is a human rights activist, but she is also a political leader. She will have to create national consensus, which may require compromises."
As if these political challenges weren’t formidable enough, there are economic realities to deal with: A United Nations Development Programme household survey estimates that a third of Myanmar’s population is below the poverty line. The currency kyat has been gradually floated only this week, but it will take time to stabilize. Economic sanctions from Europe and the US will be eased soon, but there is no guarantee that investments will flow immediately in a country where entrepreneurs face bureaucratic hurdles.
Yet, you have to add the expectations of the people, who look up to Suu Kyi as their aunty, their mother-figure, who can transform the nation’s future. And then contrast that with the reality—that she is a member of parliament, leading a party heavily outnumbered in parliament, dealing with a government in which there are some leaders she trusts, a few she doesn’t know, and many who have sought to keep her jailed.
Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist nation; the central tenet of that faith is the middle path. Suu Kyi will have to negotiate that with great dexterity. If her past record is any indication, she will succeed. In a world starved of leaders to revere, Suu Kyi belongs to that small group of unblemished men and women of integrity—Nelson Mandela of South Africa, the late Václav Havel of the Czech Republic. They remain committed to their principles: Mandela took the long walk to freedom, abandoning violence; Havel believed in living the truth, irrespective of the consequences; Suu Kyi has declared freedom from fear, to lead an ethical life.
“The wellspring of courage and endurance in the face of unbridled power is generally a firm belief in the sanctity of ethical beliefs. It is man’s vision of a world fit for rational, civilized humanity which leads him to dare and to suffer and build societies free from want and fear. Concepts such as truth, justice and compassion cannot be dismissed as trite when these are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power," she wrote in her address to the European parliament (delivered in absentia) when she was given the Sakharov Prize in 1990.
Truth against power—that simple idea has rarely been articulated so clearly.
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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