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Never Underestimate the Lady

Never Underestimate the Lady

RANGOON, Burma — I arrived in Burma yesterday, on Nov 1, one week before what promises to be a historic national election. This will be the first time in a generation that the Burmese have had a chance to participate in a competitive nationwide vote, and it’s no exaggeration to say that people here are in the grip of election fever. 6,000 candidates are fighting for 664 seats in the national parliament. Yet it’s a funny thing. 50 million people live in this country, but sometimes it seems as if the story revolves around just one of them: Aung San Suu Kyi, the legendary leader of the pro-democracy opposition. All you have to do is mention “the Lady,” and everyone here knows which one you have in mind.

Burma is struggling to emerge from 60 years of military dictatorship. Four years ago, a new government launched a cautious opening, and since then we’ve seen the release of some political prisoners, a flowering of media pluralism, and the emergence of a parliament that actually engages in debate. Most dramatically of all, the government allowed Aung San Suu Kyi — who was freed from her last house arrest in 2010 — to compete for a parliamentary seat in a 2012 by-election. That meant a dramatic change of status for the woman who is often awkwardly described as an “icon of democracy.” Since then, she has immersed herself in the grubby day-to-day business of parliamentary deal-making, a world far removed from her earlier role as a noble (and mostly invisible) dissident.

It hardly comes as a surprise, therefore, that critical voices are starting to make themselves heard. A few activists have dared to express concern about her authoritarian leadership style and her reluctance to condemn discrimination against members of the country’s Muslim minority. Having heard all this, I was curious to see whether of this had affected her popular standing.

She was scheduled to hold her last campaign rally before the election on the very day that I arrived, so I drove in to the hotel, dropped off my bags, and headed off with a colleague to see what we could see. We arrived at the site of the rally, a dusty field alongside Myo Oo Pagoda in northeastern Rangoon, about two hours before the event was set to start. And it was good that we did. Despite sweltering ninety-degree heat and a distinct absence of shade, the Lady’s supporters began streaming into the space long before their idol was set to arrive. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had applied to the authorities several times for permission to hold the rally at better locations, and was repeatedly turned down. This rather bleak venue was the consolation prize.

What I saw in the course of the day dispelled any doubts. Soon the crowd of Suu Kyi fans was spilling out of the field and into the surrounding neighborhood. Though most press reports spoke merely of “tens of thousands,” I’d say the number of those in attendance was close to 100,000. They cheered lustily as rock bands and stand-up comics kept them entertained. Not keen to be hemmed in, my colleague and I stuck to the margins, and our search for relief from the sun finally nudged us over to a tree-shaded house that stood just on the other side of an access road bordering the field.

The owner of the house, a 40-year-old engineer named Aung Ye Htike, told me that he and the rest of their family were long-time NLD supporters — which was apparent enough from the dozen or so relatives in attendance, ranging from a four-year-old girl to a matriarch of 74, all of them clad in t-shirts in the signature NLD color of bright red, and adorned with the party’s fighting peacock symbol and portraits of Suu Kyi. Why did they all love her so much, I asked? “It’s all about belief,” Aung Ye Htike said. “I believe absolutely that she can change the country. She can turn any situation around.” His 62-year-old cousin, Sandar Win Aung, chimed in. “I believe that Daw Suu can lift us out of poverty,” she declared, using a Burmese honorific often applied to the Lady. How, I asked? She shrugged. “She’ll give us knowledge.”

The Burmese devotion to Suu Kyi has little to do with specifics. For many people here, the NLD leader remains a transcendental figure, someone whose extraordinary self-sacrifice and stubborn resolve in the face of horrific oppression have lent her the aura of a saint. Her biographer Peter Popham noted that, following a famous incident in which she calmly defied gun-toting soldiers, many began “to consider her a female bodhisattva, an angel, a divine being.” So far, it seems, her work as a member of the legislature has done little to tarnish that image. (Worshipful treatment by the media probably hasn’t hurt.)

Miracles do happen, it seems. Aung Ye Htike’s family turned out to be in exactly the right place when the divine presence finally materialized. Suddenly she was right there, Aung San Suu Kyi herself, standing in the sunroof of her car as it moved slowly past us on her way to the stage, and the ladies of our house were ecstatically handing up their bouquets of flowers. Mother Suu, the reigning goddess of Burmese politics, accepted their gifts with a smile — and then she was gone.

“I never thought I would see her in person,” Aung Ye Htike told me, as breathless as one of the red-clad teenage girls taking selfies behind him. “I still can’t quite believe it.” The tens of thousands were equally ecstatic when, just a short time later, the Lady took to the stage and delivered her speech. Let there be no doubt: the love affair between Aung San Suu Kyi and her compatriots is still a long way from over. One wonders, indeed, whether any election can change it.

In the photo, Aung San Suu Kyi supporters hold posters bearing her image as she speaks during a campaign rally for the National League for Democracy in Rangoon on November 1, 2015.

Photo credit: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images