The Lady and a Long Awaited Dream

For Sa Bei Oo, joining the National League for Democracy (NLD) at age 21 seemed like the only logical thing to do. As she reminisced about the 1990 election, singing songs from the original campaign in her sweet voice, I admired her sense of loyalty to a political party for over 20 years. “It’s about being a humanitarian, so I chose to stand by a party that supports human rights,” she said.

Sitting in a rather dingy party headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar it felt surreal to be witnessing the NLD campaign in preparation for the April 1st by- election. Sa Bei captivated me with her determination to fight for freedom in her long awaited dream, to see ‘The Lady’, more formally known as Aung San Suu Kyi run for parliament.

Almost every member of the original campaign team had fled overseas to avoid imprisonment, however Sa Bei believed that it was her duty to stay in Burma with ’The Lady’. A long awaited dream that has taken 22 years to eventuate, she is finally humbled to share stories of the NLD’s motivation to contest the 2012 by-election. She spoke with excitement and sense of pride over the party’s ability to have survived despite harsh military rule, whilst showing me pictures from the original campaign with a cheesy yet admissible grin. She attributed loyalty to the NLD based on regular secret underground meetings, close friendships, laughter and a binding will to fight for the freedom of Burma today and for future generations to cherish.

‘The Lady’ has inspired millions of Burmese who have continually hoped for change through a functioning democracy. Earlier this year, at 66 years of age, Suu Kyi led the NLD on its national campaign, one that has been well received by supporters across the country. During the 1990 general election, the Burmese military had denied Suu Kyi in claiming victory, despite her party capturing 59% of the national vote. Instead, she was held under house arrest for almost 20 years, whilst activists and party affiliates were imprisoned.

For me, returning to Burma has been an enthralling experience. There is a vibe and optimism spreading through the streets of Yangon that has ignited the spirit of the Burmese people. For the first time in 20 years, people openly talk about the NLD, stroll through the streets wearing party t-shirts and parade campaign stickers and flags on vehicles albeit the corny slogan ‘We Must Win’.

Only two years ago, my desire to have a long winded political conversation with locals was often shrugged off due to an embedded fear instilled by the Military’s harsh fifty year reign. I distinctly remember strolling through the markets to have a man whisper from behind, “our military is very, very bad”, only to turn and notice he had vanished through the maze of fruit and vegetable sellers.

This time around it’s a whole new Burma; the media is reporting the NLD’s campaign and locals are eager to engage in conversation about the future of Myanmar. Thin Thin Soe, a young NLD party volunteer expressed how she had coined the term ‘NLDisation;’

“2012 will be the year the NLD will help project Myanmar in a positive light to the world, because we know the world is watching,” she said.

I also came across a Chinese student who felt the compelling desire to be in Yangon for the by- election. She claimed that stumbling across an old issue of Time Magazine with ‘The Lady’ featured had enlightened her to the current political situation in Burma. She could not help but compare a stark parallel to the feelings prevalent amongst the youth in China today; “Coming here and seeing so many young people openly express their support for democracy is unheard of back home. It feels so liberating being here” she said. It was also an unusual sight at the NLD party headquarters in Yangon, once a dormant building now swarming with foreign journalists. Sitting across the road in a local tea house, I watched this historical event unfold. I couldn't help but notice the abundance of obvious military spies pretending to be busy fixing old motorbikes and glancing though The Myanmar Times ironically covering the NLD campaign. I could only giggle at the irony and sensed a slight resentment concerning the prospect that they may soon become redundant from ‘spy-hood’ in the not too distant future.

Despite the jittery optimism, people of all ages are harbouring a natural sense of scepticism about the impact of the by-election. An elderly man who claimed to be an ex- military officer confessed his reservations about the future;

“I know what the military is capable of first hand, so I don’t believe they will just step aside and bring in a real democracy.”

Many experts believe that despite measures taken to reform, the new government led by Thein Sein is being controlled by members of the old junta. The true test for Burma will come at the next general election in 2015 but for the time being, the people are ecstatic with democracy fever after been given a small taste of freedom.

This long-awaited dream for Sai Bei has finally been realised. As the large convoy of NLD campaign vans and supporters fill the streets in an inspiring glimmer of hope, they danced, laughed and sung to official party anthems played on repeat until the imposed martial law curfew at midnight. Being an observer was simply not an option; Sa Bei waved me down from the official party van and plucked me out of the crowd to dance on board the NLD truck. Hoping that my obscure dancing would not make the headline news, I had an opportunity to take in the moment; a moment in history that would change the future of Burma forever. After more than half a century of suppression, supporters of the NLD have come together in a show of solidarity and strength demanding basic human rights.

Myanmar is still considered one of the least developed nations in the world despite being rich in resources. The April 1st by-election was the first time the NLD has been allowed to contest an election in over two decades. The party won at least 40 of the 44 seats and pledges to work towards a more open and progressive Myanmar that serves the needs of its people.

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