“So, what do you think of ‘The Lady’?” my neighbor on the train asked me. He looked around conspiratorially before he asked – a habit left over from an all-to-recent era of government repression and undercover informants.
“The Lady? She’s great. I’ve been following the news about her since coming here,” I replied. I’ve been on this train for several hours and it’s hardly moved. Some sort of mudslide delay, not to mention the trains themselves are nearly seventy years old. Any chance for a conversation is more than welcome.
‘The Lady’ is, as anyone who has been to Burma readily knows, Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy and longtime opponent of the oppressive junta that has ruled this country for fifty years. Up until 2010, Suu Kyi had been in and out of house arrest. She spent most of the time since her party won a resounding electoral victory in 1990 confined to her house, unable to leave. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and countless other honors, she is now, arguably, the most famous democracy and human rights advocate working against oppression in government.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of beloved independence leader, Aung San. After leading his country to independence from Great Britain, Aung San was assassinated when his daughter was only two years old. His status as a national hero (to both the general public and ruling military) likely prevented the junta from simply disposing of (in one unsavory way or another) Suu Kyi at the start of the democracy movement twenty-five years ago. Instead, they resorted to killing, torturing and imprisoning thousands of her followers, including many NLD politicians who had just won elections.
Despite everything they did to stop her, wear her down, or defame her (including refusing her British husband a visa to visit her in the last days before he passed away from cancer), she kept up the struggle for democracy in Burma. Her popularity kept growing both at home and abroad. She’s long been the thing the Generals fear most; a diminutive, peaceful woman, nearly 70 years old now, who petrifies a modern army.
Burma (or Myanmar if you prefer the recent arbitrary name change imposed by the dictatorship) is a unique country. There are quite a few quirks that pervade daily life for a visitor. For example, cars have their steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle, but also drive on that side of the road (the only country to do this.) This is a fine case of how Burma marches to the beat of the Generals’ drums. The reason for this odd driving setup is because, first, General Ne Win — the guy who started the whole tyrannical military government — heard from his on-hire mystical soothsayers that he would soon encounter trouble “from the Left.” Rather than take this to mean “from Left-Wing political groups” (as it was likely intended) he spazzed out and took it to mean, quite literally, from the direction ‘left.’
Ne Win also once declared that all Burmese money was immediately worthless and re-assigned all bill totals to multiples of nine (45, 90, etc). Why? Because a fortune teller told him that nine was his lucky number. A seemingly comical move but, of course, this essentially left every Burmese citizen without any legal money, wiping out their savings.
Also, this is the guy who killed or imprisoned everyone and anyone he wanted for nearly thirty years. Needless to say, he’s not held in high esteem amongst your average Burmese these days.
“Our government… it is still very crazy. Very bad,” my companion on the train continues. “I was with the student revolution in 1988. Still many of us are in jail, it’s very bad.” The fact that he is opening up like this could probably be attributed to the fact that, in 2011, the military dictatorship finally relaxed some restrictions on the press and public expression. This wasn’t out of the goodness of their own hearts. They just wanted to convince the West to lift sanctions and encourage investment and tourism.
Three years ago, however, my now-talkative friend might have been hauled off to the notorious Insein Prison at night for saying things like this. Even after the reforms and the release of Suu Kyi and others, the junta still goes wild at times and shoots up minority Muslim or Christian villages in the restive borderlands of the country. The idea is that, so long as they are fighting “terrorists” or “communists” in the ethnic divisions of outer Burma, people will still believe they need a strong military in control. The fact that visitors and aid workers aren’t allowed into these parts of the country, though, show you just how little the government values transparency to this day.
2015 may herald a change, though. The ruling party has promised free and fair elections slated for that year. This promise has been made before, of course. Back then in 1990, their words proved a hollow as the coconuts sold in the markets of Mandalay. This time, though, there have been the gradual reforms of the past few years, allowing many to feel optimistic.
Everyone (except maybe the military) seems to believe that if the elections are truly free and fair, Suu Kyi’s NLD will win easily and she will be propelled into the Presidency. Nowadays, photos, posters and calendars featuring ‘The Lady’ are proudly displayed in most homes and shops. The NLD logo is emblazoned across hundreds of t-shirts on the streets of Burma. Finally given the chance to voice and display where their loyalties lie, most in the country are seizing the chance. You’d have to bury your head in the sand to not see where this will likely lead given a free election. It just remains to be seen if the Generals will be willing to watch their sworn opponent of over two decades ascend to the head of a real government here.
“Do you think the NLD will win in 2015?” I ask my neighbor back on the train. He has, by this point, loaded up his cheek with a leaf of betel nut — the ubiquitous, dark red chaw that seemingly every man in Burma chews. We’ve stopped at a new station and he buys a bottle of water from a vendor passing through the aisle.
“Will the NLD win? Yes. Almost certainly. Will they truly be allowed to properly lead after they win? We’ll see.” He snorts out a laugh and spits a stream of betel nut juice out the window, staining the station platform red.