I poked my head in the taxi and said, ‘Mingalabar – Yuzana Hotel?’ with a glint in my eyes that is one of the many subtle codes here in Burma for ‘I mean something else, but I’m not supposed to say it.’ Given that they are speaking with a foreigner, sometimes people reflect that glint back to me and sometimes not; fortunately, this driver did. He knew I wasn’t going to the Yuzana Hotel, but instead to the far more interesting destination across the street. He smiled, glinting, and pointed to his dash, where he had affixed a National League for Democracy (NLD) badge from the week’s previous elections. I giggled nervously and hopped in.
On the way to the NLD headquarters, the driver sputtered in excited broken English about the night before. He had been hired by a pack of foreign journalists, he said, to keep his taxi idling while they sat outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, awaiting her release. They had given up 20,000 kyat, around USD 20, and he was still thrilled at his good luck. True, this was a hefty fare for a driver in Rangoon, but I was more confounded by foreign journalists in Burma openly stating their business – and that my driver was talking so freely about the NLD and Suu Kyi. We drove past the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the gold dome glinted in the morning sun.
The crowd and atmosphere thickened closer to the NLD headquarters. It was still an hour before Suu Kyi’s scheduled noon speech, but clusters of longyi-clad locals were already eagerly arranging themselves for the best view, squatting in the street, perching on the branch of a mango tree, unfazed by the broiling sun. The international community had arrived too: shiny vehicles bearing diplomatic plates – Japan, USA, UK, Singapore, France – lined the curb leading up to the ragged NLD headquarters. No other cars were getting through here, as the road was completely blocked by the crowd – though this in itself was an enigma. Where were the police? Where were the rifle-wielding soldiers who are an everyday presence on Rangoon’s streets? Instead of it being a relief, their conspicuous absence only added to a palpable tension. What was going to happen? Was it a trap?
I wheedled my way into the crowd of thousands – men, women, children, Burmese and foreign, old and young, monks aplenty – finding a tight spot to squat down and sweat and wait with the others. I made mental notes of ways out in case it became necessary to run, but the mood was amiable. Hawkers were selling fresh fruit and ice lollies; down in front, a large woman in large sunglasses kept standing up, blocking the view with her wide bottom, but everyone just laughed at her. Next to me, a rawboned old man with heavy black glasses was holding a tattered piece of paper. On one side was a yellowed photo of Burma’s national hero, General Aung San; on the other, a smeary printout of his smiling daughter, Suu Kyi. Every few minutes he would creak up to his feet and spin slowly in a circle, exhibiting to the crowd this image clutched tightly to his chest. Tame applause and wild grins rippled through the crowd as he turned. A mischievous smile flooded his face, and in his eyes: hope, decipherable, glittering and real. He squatted down again and smiled at me. Momentarily, for the first time in seven years, Aung San Suu Kyi would be speaking to her country’s people and to the world.
To understand what it meant for these few thousand Burmese to gather in that particular spot for that particular reason, one need only look at the very recent history of outright terror the military junta has inspired in ordinary citizens. Just three years ago, the monk-led Saffron Revolution put the world’s eyes on Burma, as the military violently crushed a peaceful protest, leaving thousands dead. Since then, of course, little, if anything, has changed for the better. Against this backdrop, the recent election and the release of Suu Kyi both signify a window – a tiny shaft of light for the Burmese people. Of course, the ruling generals have done their best to bolt the shutters against that light, and fear and intimidation have remained a daily part of life here – the weeks leading up to the election and Suu Kyi’s release being no exception.
With Internet connections almost completely inactive during the month prior to the election (the state media put this down to a ‘virus’ in the national servers), a country that already gets its news largely by word-of-mouth was forced into an even grosser grinding mill of rumour and hearsay, only aggravated by pre-polls tension. Many locals had no idea who the candidates were, or they did not care; either way, it was widely accepted that the polls were a sham. ‘Will you vote?’ I quietly asked many people, to which the responses were always the same, ‘Oh, I don’t really know anything about politics,’ or, from the braver respondents, ‘This election is not real.’ One young woman even said, ‘No. I won’t. Will you?’ That she thought a foreigner could vote in her country’s election only goes to show how long real democracy has been absent inside these borders.
There was some evidence of public-education campaigns on state television. One ‘how to vote’ special showed smiling Burmese in their respective national costumes making X’s on ballots and placing them into boxes. Aside from this single show, however, a sudden rash of Elvis Presley movies seemed to dominate local channels in the run-up. In retrospect, Elvis swivelling his hips in jeans and a cowboy hat, electing his favourite from among a blonde, brunette and redheaded cowgirl, could well offer some lessons about democracy. But they were probably not the ones the Burmese people needed at the time.
Instead, everyone stayed largely in the dark. Whispers of happenings outside the city – fighting on the Thai border, a massacre in Bago, mutiny among hungry Burmese soldiers – trickled in from uncles, aunts and friends of friends. Yet when pressed for details, mouths closed and eyes averted. Exchange rates fluctuated wildly in the month before the election, the dollar losing up to a quarter of its value against the kyat on some days. Explanations ranged inexplicably from ‘the kyat is strong in the morning’ to ‘there will be a flood of dollars entering the country at an upcoming gem expo in Naypyidaw’ to ‘the government financial offices are closed for a few weeks’ to the obvious answer, always spoken in a whisper – the election. Of course, even this explains little. But then, little makes sense in Burma. ‘I don’t know’ is the most common answer to everything, but it is the one that tends to keep people the safest.
Two days before the election, I was eating noodles on Mahabandoolah Street, a main thoroughfare in downtown Rangoon. It was hot and busy, full of garbage and noise as a typical afternoon downtown. And then, suddenly, an explosion. Surely many thought back to March, when a bomb attack during Burma’s annual water festival killed nine celebrants. At that time, the state media blamed ethnic separatists, but the people surmised that it was the usual suspect: their own government. This time around, the chaos of the street came to an immediate halt; for a half-minute, there was almost no sound at all. A man across and down the street stirred his tea, the spoon tinkling against the tin cup for all to hear. Yet gradually, as the truth sank in (‘Ah, only a car backfiring! Phew!’), sound and movement again rippled up and down the sidewalk. Clearly, though, everyone was on edge.
In such situations there are, of course, the rumours. But then there are also one’s own personal suspicions, growing inside your head. Is that man a spy? Is someone reading my e-mail? The day before the election saw what seemed to be an abnormal amount of chanting at the monastery behind my house – but was it actually abnormal? Was I just projecting? Why are they praying so hard? Crazy, paranoid thoughts, I kept telling myself, and this isn’t even my country…
Of course, the day of the election was quiet. The mood in town could only be described as mildly depressed. No flames, no feast. A week later, word of Suu Kyi’s release spread as rapidly as could be expected. Her 14 November speech was not formerly announced in the local media. I learned of it from a man in a truck, who gave me an especially glinty thumbs-up, quickly decoded as, ‘She’s free! Great news!’ When I returned the gesture he shouted out the window, ‘Tomorrow! She will speak! Twelve o’clock! Bahan township!’ and then pulled away, still grinning. A bold move, I thought. I had never seen this kind of behaviour in Burma. Was fear being replaced by hope?
I was warned before going to hear Suu Kyi’s talk that there were rumours: the speech was really a trap, the government was going to use it as a chance to attack. In the end it was a peaceful affair, but one has to wonder about fear-driven peace. When Suu Kyi emerged to address the crowd, a surprisingly calm round of clapping went through the crowd. People were clearly restraining their excitement. But as the clapping became more urgent, a girl next to me whispered under her breath, in English for me to hear, ‘Ooohh. We must be caaaareful. We must have self-controoool.’ Moments later, as Suu Kyi began to speak, these were exactly the themes that she focused on too: hope, but self-control as well.
The sun was very hot. A man with a large umbrella shared it with me. There was something he wanted to say to me. I watched him reach, with difficulty, way back into his brain for the right words in English. This was important. He needed to find the words, I could see. He looked me directly in the eye, no glint necessary. Slowly the words came out, earnestly: ‘She is our leader.’
~ Anonymous is a writer based in Rangoon.