It’s twenty years since I saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speaking over her garden gate on University Avenue in Yangon. She was in and out of house arrest at the time. Now she’s on the road, criss-crossing the country ahead of Myanmar’s first properly contested General Election since 1990.
I leave Dala, Yangon’s tiny cross-river twin-city, stuffed into a share taxi en route for Kawhmu, the main township in the constituency that Aung San Suu Kyi represents as a National League for Democracy MP.
It’s only about twenty miles from downtown but it’s properly rural. For almost an hour we swerve around potholes and overtake slower moving traffic at speed. All along the road trucks and buses carry red NLD logos. Small red NLD flags fly from motorcycle handlebars. Their drivers wear red NLD headbands. Pedestrians carry larger flags over their shoulders. In roadside shops and tea stalls staff and customers are wearing NLD t-shirts. Children have NLD stickers on their cheeks. They’re all red.
In each village posters promote the local NLD candidates, always alongside a larger picture of Aung San Suu Kyi. The closer we get to Kawhmu the higher the concentration of red striking a contrast with the end-of-rainy-season tropical green. Until it’s almost everywhere, almost everyone.
On the outskirts of the village traffic is at a standstill. Nose to nose. I walk the last half-mile past sound systems competing to play campaign songs at maximum volume. In an open football field a swelling flag-waving crowd is being entertained by singers and a live band. A hip-hop-house anthem repeatedly proclaims the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi. The crowd know the words. There is a festival atmosphere. Food stalls and hawkers selling the flags, headbands and stickers have set up shop. For some reason a large grey balloon is sent up into the grey sky.
Excitement builds. Lots of people want their photo taken with me.
Four o’clock approaches and a man on the stage tells the crowd that everyone needs to be sitting down before we can start. Then he explains that Daw Suu is stuck in the traffic. She will be a bit late. Then he tells us again. There are at least twenty thousand people here. The entertainment has finished. The flag waving has stopped. Everyone waits quietly. And no-one addresses the crowd while we wait, other than to remind us who we are waiting for. There is no second-on-this-bill to fill the gap.
The NLD says vote for the party, not the candidate. She is the party.
When her open-roofed car turns into the field Daw Suu is standing, clearly visible in brilliant yellow amidst the sea of red. She waves and smiles as the car makes its way through the crowd. Flowers are passed up to her. The reception is rapturous. But respectful.
She is quickly on stage. She starts to speak. The microphone does not work. She’s given another and starts again, holding both. At the time I’ve not much idea what she is saying but afterwards I read* that a key part of her message was that the existing government should not fear the outcome of the election. Whoever wins the election, all will remain involved in Myanmar’s political process. The NLD’s objective is that everyone, supporters and opponents, should live together peacefully and safely. There will be no revenge. Her father, the nation’s universally acclaimed hero General Aung San, founded the army and she wants it to regain its dignity, to be loved again by the people. The stage she speaks from is dressed with larger-than-life photos of herself and him.
Vote for her. Vote for him.
She speaks for twenty minutes. Everyone listens. Intently. She gets a laugh where she hoped to. Cheers and applause where expected. When it comes to preaching to the converted Aung San Suu Kyi can teach even Jeremy Corbyn a thing or two hundred.
Then she takes half a dozen questions from people sitting at the front. Some of these get the biggest cheers of all. More singing followed, Daw Suu sitting out of view (of the crowd, but not of the cameras) on the grass, by now wearing a red neckerchief thrust upon her earlier by a stage invader. She looks quite the young (communist?) country girl on a works outing. And a lot less than 70.
Job done. As she has been doing wherever she has been. In Rakhine state last week. In Shan state a few days ago. And wherever it is she will be this week (at a presumably huge rally in Yangon on Sunday Nov 1st) as she drives relentlessly, surely, towards a big victory in the November 8th poll.
She cannot then become President (elected in three months by MPs, 25% of them from the army) because her husband was British, because Aung San’s grandsons are British. A law designed just to stop her says so. What happens after the election is another to-be-continued, second-act story.
Walking away from Kawhmu I was offered a ride back towards Yangon in a minivan, the driver on a day trip with friends. As we struggled through the now even more built up traffic he shared his high spirits. “Everyone is smiling, everyone loves her.” And his concerns. “She is old already. There is no-one else. No young leaders in our party. That is the problem now.”
It’s all about the girl.
And her Dad.
* In the Myanmar Times.
The photo at the top of the page was taken by Yan Yan Chan. (Thanks.) The others are mine.