YANGON, Myanmar (Burma) — Standing outside his wooden home in central Yangon, Aung Kyaw Moe proudly shows off his latest piece of ink-work: a portrait of Gen. Aung San that wraps around his muscly upper arm.
Like many Burmese, the 29-year-old rower, a member of Myanmar’s national team, idolizes his country’s national hero, who fought for independence from British colonialism. But with by-elections approaching, Aung Kyaw says his tattoo is also a sign of his support for the general’s daughter, the country’s iconic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Ahead of Sunday’s poll in Myanmar (formerly Burma), thousands of residents in Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital, have poured into the streets in support of Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Restricted during years of military dictatorship from showing their support, the party’s activists have gone to town, putting on a full-throated political celebration of a talismanic leader many refer to simply as “The Lady.”
“She represents the truth. She’s always doing the right thing,” Aung Kyaw says of the 66-year-old Nobel laureate, who is standing for elected office for the first time (the country's junta barred her from doing so in 1990). “I trust her like I trust my father.”
For weeks, Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, one of four townships in Yangon that are contesting the by-election, has been in the full grip of NLD fever.
Touring the constituency in the final days of campaigning, the party’s local candidate, Phyu Phyu Thin, is mobbed by crowds. Whole families, from infants to hunched village elders, turn out to see The Lady’s chosen representative, waving small paper flags and plastering their cheeks with party stickers.
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Trailing behind her are groups of young NLD die-hards in party bandanas and T-shirts declaring “We Must Win.” They dance and chant party slogans, while others drive by in trucks blaring catchy campaign songs. “Come and support the NLD,” runs the refrain of one upbeat number. “To overcome all kinds of miseries/Vote for the NLD.”
This carnival atmosphere would have been unthinkable just a year ago, when displaying a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi was a government-enforced taboo: a one-way ticket to arrest and interrogation.
“The Lady has sacrificed her life for decades, [but] people have not had a chance before to express their feelings,” says Phyu Phyu, a stout woman with a beaming smile who seems relieved to have a break from the hectic campaigning. “Now they have a chance and you can see their support everywhere.”
In Mingalar Taung Nyunt, the NLD’s red insignia — printed on T-shirts, flags and banners — smothers all competing campaigns, including the dark green of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which currently holds a massive majority in parliament following flawed elections in 2010.
If a fair national election were held tomorrow, it’s hard not to see the NLD being swept to power on a towering wave of popular support.
For now, however, they’ll have to wait. Just 48 seats, including 40 in the country’s 440-seat lower house, are up for election on Sunday, recently vacated by lawmakers promoted to cabinet positions. (The next national poll is in 2015). Even if the NLD wins most of them, which many here expect, it will hold a tiny minority in the lower house, which reserves a quarter of its seats for military candidates.
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For the NLD, however, there’s arguably more at stake than a few dozen seats.
It's been more than two decades since the party won a landslide victory in the 1990 election — a result that was simply ignored by the clique of ruling generals. Since then, the NLD has been forced into the margins by official crackdowns. Those of its activists who avoided arrest were kept under close official surveillance. Suu Kyi was confined for years to her crumbling lakeside villa in Yangon.
When the country held general elections in November 2010, the NLD opted to boycott the proceedings, which many criticized as a fig-leaf for continued military rule.
But following a string of unexpected reforms under the quasi-civilian government that took office in March 2011, the NLD returned to the political fold, triggering an eruption of pent-up public support. This weekend's elections are a small but significant litmus test of whether the reforms will continue moving in the right direction.
Meanwhile, a side-effect has been a hot market in Suu Kyi merchandise.
Daw Babi, 52, the owner of a print shop on Ko Min Ko Chin Road, started printing NLD T-shirts in December and has already sold between 20,000 and 30,000. “Now I have lots and lots of orders,” she says, as her staff work a production line, screening Suu Kyi’s portrait onto piles of T-shirts and assembling dozens of small NLD flags.
Maung Wuntha, a veteran journalist based in Yangon, says that despite the small number of seats up for grabs this week, the atmosphere in competing townships is much more electric than during the last campaign. “In 2010, there was no appropriate rival for the USDP… So it is a very, very important race,” he says.
Yazar, 34, one of Phyu Phyu Thin’s three campaign managers, has another theory for the explosion of support. “It is more than excitement or surprise or any other emotion you can express,” he says. “It’s more like a second religion, and now as soon they have a chance the people worship her.”
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Indeed, the main challenge for the NLD going forward might be how to keep popular expectations in check.
After years of struggle and personal sacrifice, and despite the obstacles she will face in a military-dominated parliament, many of Suu Kyi’s supporters view her as a national messiah able to overcome any obstacle.
“If she gets into parliament and gets some sort of power, the poor are going to become rich,” says Nwe Win, 35, a resident of Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township.
Aung Naing, 39, an old student activist clad in shades, NLD bandana and Suu Kyi T-shirt, says similarly that The Lady will “provide every need” if she enters government. “It’s a very precious moment,” he adds.
Swedish journalist and Burma expert Bertil Lintner says that in the minds of many people in Myanmar, Suu Kyi exists on a higher plane to other politicians. “They see her as the female bodhisattva who is going to deliver them from the evils of the military regime,” he says. “How she feels about that, I don’t know.”
It’s a crushing burden for any leader, and the NLD may be hard-pressed to avoid a post-election hangover.
One notable skeptic is U Thein Nyunt, chairman of the New National Democracy Party. A long-time NLD activist, Nyunt left to start his own party after Suu Kyi and her colleagues opted to boycott the 2010 election, and won himself a seat in parliament.
Nyunt remains critical of the overwhelming expectations surrounding The Lady’s candidacy, and thinks she will find it hard to cooperate with the military members in parliament. In 1990, he said, “people were convinced that if The Lady wins, they’re all going to be rich … But in reality, all we got was international sanctions." With such a small presence in government, the way forward for the iconic leader is anything but clear.
“It will be remarkable if The Lady gets into the parliament,” he adds, but "... what are they going to do to make their reality happen?”
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