Burma is buzzing
Decades of Burmese silence and fear evaporate as national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, invigorates the people and challenges the Generals. From Burma, Kasper Stensgaard reports.
For the first time in over 20 years, the name of Burma’s national hero will yet again be featured on the ballots as a candidate for Burma’s election this April. After a series of political rallies before euphoric crowds, Burma’s democratic talisman, Aung San Suu Kyi, recently returned to Yangon capping off two months of campaigning on the dusty roads of the often forgotten Asian country.
Commonly referred to as ‘The Lady’, 67-year old Aung San Suu Kyi is injecting a fiery hope into millions of Burmese that things may still change despite 50 years of political repression and catastrophic economic policies that have subjected the Burmese to undue hardship and a destitute standard of living.
“No longer do you have to be afraid to speak your minds. No longer shall you fear repression. Go out and say what you want to say.” This was one of the messages when Aung San Suu Kyi addressed around 10,000 supporters in early March south of Mandalay. Just months ago such an action would be deemed extremely bold and risk full, nonetheless times are changing.
Today thousands of tea shops and beer stations across the country are teeming with enthusiastic voices eager to share their version of the country’s future. Although years of broken promises and political about-faces by the rulers have fostered deep mistrust in the Burmese people, there is an unmistakable belief that the voice of the people will soon reverberate in the parliament.
A golden peacock and a white star juxtaposed against a red background are commonly seen in the streets, markets and restaurants of Burmese cities. It is the symbol of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, The National League for Democracy (NLD). In recent months the symbol has re-emerged from coerced hiding into public open spaces, including T-shirts, stickers, caps and banners, to mention only a few. It transcends age, profession and income and its omnipresence is building an unprecedented atmosphere of optimism and opportunity for individual expression.
As an appetiser for the new times of increased freedom of speech, the NLD in January arranged a series of cartoon exhibitions across the country. Satirical and extremely critical of the government, hundreds of short cartoons indirectly ridiculed the Generals and lamented Burma’s economic disparities. The exhibitions drew huge crowds and vendors selling knick-knacks and other NLD merchandise could not keep up with the insatiable demands of children, labourers and monks eager to show their support.
At a local Mandalay beer station, where pints of the national stalwart Myanmar Beer are consumed as early as 10 am, 26-year old assistant manager, Myo Myind, shared his views on the current tide of political change. “Myanmar is changing and it is actually quite weird that we are now able to talk about all these things. It is very surprising for us, and we have all bought NLD T-shirts here at our beer station,” and said although optimistic he will need to see real and long-term changes before he starts clapping his hands.
While many Burmese are busy flying the colours of the NLD, according to a journalist at The New Light of Mandalay, Yay Chan, there is an unspoken contract that no one should be as bold as to direct blatant criticism at the government. Therefore it is still a ubiquitous situation in which expression of opinion has to be balanced against the sanctions that the government could potentially still impose on its people.
Political prisoners of Burma have been exposed to medieval torture since the military seized power in 1962. Any sort of opposition to the continued rule of the Generals would risk imprisonment, which often entailed severe malnutrition and forced labour.
It was not more than four months ago that government spies permeated all layers of society. As a means to repress criticism of the rule of the government, thousands of undercover agents lurked in tea shops and other public places for decades. It is not a stretch to compare the fright and paranoia of this period to that of East Germany during the years behind the Iron Curtain.
The new political climate that has mobilised public participation and relaxed the political environment emerged as a result of a newspaper article in a government mouthpiece in late 2011. In a surprising move the government suddenly allowed public expression of political views and promised at the same time that doing so would have no consequences.
As the election approaches, excitement only builds. However, some Burmese are worried that the expectations that come hand in hand with the sudden resurrection of the public space will eventually leave many Burmese in disillusion.
Retired freelance journalist and translator, Win Myint, is a regular at Good Morning Tea House in Mandalay, a local gathering spot where snacks, tea and coffee are often washed down with a spiteful joke about the government. He often meets up with pro-democratic friends here and discusses political developments. He believes it is imperative that the Burmese do not get caught up in the fervor of the moment but instead listen carefully to the words of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“It is going to be a long time before we will see great improvements here. If the NLD gain influence, it will still be a battle for them to turn around our ruined economy,” said Mr. Myint and continued:
“Our education system is decades behind those of many other countries. Therefore people must listen to The Lady who does not make any promises, but instead only promises to do the best she can and work for nothing but the interests of the people.”
Burma’s former military government disbanded in May 2011 and gave way to a new parliament, which, despite military majority, now also has civilian representation. It is widely believed that the new government is only tolerating public displays of political opposition because it is busy restoring international ties in an attempt to convince countries such as America to lift economic sanctions. If the government, however, wants to first mend and subsequently maintain good relations with the international community, they must concede to the demands of free speech as well as create a transparent and credible framework for the coming election.
It is very likely that the world is about to see a slow but significant change in Burma, but fundamental change may remain a dream for years to come. Many observers are adamant that true change will only be possible through amending the constitution, which requires two thirds of the 48 seats of the parliament to vote in favour. This will most likely be Aung San Suu Kyi’s mission if she is still politically active at the next Burmese elections in 2017.