Exactly twenty years back Aung San Suu Kyi was released from the first of her house arrests and on 4 October 1995 went to visit the revered U Vinaya’s* monastery in the Kayin State – her first journey outside Yangon in six years.
She wrote of the journey with some lyricism in a couple of pieces titled, The Road to Thamanya – narratives which are rich with the fragrance of long-awaited freedom and the suppressed excitement of a child setting off on an adventure. The deep sense of connection she feels with the Burmese countryside is evident as she describes white stupas wreathed in morning mist and bamboo fences with their delicate frieze of flowering vines. Everything appears magical in the early morning light and the discomfort of travelling in a car in an “indifferent state of repair” cannot dampen her spirits – despite the car radio unceremoniously falling off and the first-aid box, firmly ensconced at the back, suddenly found nestling by her feet!
As she passes through the smaller townships of the Mon State there is a distinct softening of her tone as she describes the NLD offices, modest huts perched on slender bamboo poles, “These [NLD] signboards, brilliantly red and white, are a symbol of the courage of people who have remained dedicated to their beliefs in the face of severe repression, whose commitment to democracy has not been shaken by the adversities they have experienced. The thought that such people are to be found all over Burma lifted my heart…”
Today the country is awash with the same red and white. And Aung San Suu Kyi, under shadows since 2012 because of her perceived indifference towards the Rohingya Muslims, has returned as the queen of world media. I guess it helps that she still looks glorious despite the greying temples and an evident frailty – factors, which we might remember, had earlier emphasised the vulnerability of her feminine image, been rather conveniently conflated with that of the democracy movement of Myanmar and thus ensured perpetuation of western paternalism. As for Aung San Suu Kyi herself, during this entire period when her image went under eclipse, she maintained apparent calm and remained committed to winning the NLD victory rather than kowtowing to the singular pro-human rights, above-politics approach everyone expected of her.
Based on current election results, Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD (National League for Democracy) has won 95 of Upper House seats (57% of total 168 seats being contested after 25% reservation for military) and 196 of Lower House seats (59% of total 330 seats being contested after 25% reservation for military). In order to elect a president the winning party needs to secure more than half of the parliamentary seats which translates into 329 seats which means NLD currently needs another 38 seats to make the mark. The results for close to 90 seats are yet to be declared but it can be safely said that her party is trending towards a landslide win.
So what does the NLD victory mean? First and foremost, there is something distinctly unapologetic in this victory. Aung San Suu Kyi, going against her earlier insistence on not endorsing creative artists who have been vocal in supporting the democracy movement, has in the wake of the election results invited into her home Burmese filmmakers, musicians and actors who have helped make her campaign a success. She has openly acknowledged for example the role of hip-hop artist Anegga whose feisty “Fighting peacock NLD” converted many a political meeting into a dance party and has allowed herself to be photographed with smiling groups of celebrities. She has also gone on record to tell the BBC that the NLD is likely to win 75% of elected seats across the bicameral parliament and has sent invitations for a meeting with President Thein Sein as well as Military Chief Min Aung Hlaing and outgoing Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, despite knowing that a majority of her supporters do not look kindly on her nexus with the latter. This is distinctly different from the careful distance that the NLD has earlier maintained both with other pro-democracy parties (the 8888 party for example) as well ethnic coalitions (the UNA for example) so as not to be perceived as ‘ganging up’ with radical elements against the ruling USDP and Suu Kyi’s own credo of ‘cautious optimism’. There is a quiet confidence in the new stance of the NLD (read Aung San Suu Kyi) without any apparent muscle flexing which augers well for the democratisation process of Myanmar. The next time Obama descends on the country and decides to plant a patronising peck on Suu Kyi’s cheek or throw a protective arm around her shoulder, he would perhaps do well to remember that he is not meeting a victimised political activist but the unanimously elected leader of a country of 54 million.
But this is exactly where the reasons for celebration end. With the country’s constitution debarring Suu Kyi herself from becoming President, who would the NLD promote as its presidential candidate? A name doing the rounds is of the NLD veteran and Emeritus Chairman, U Tin Oo. Arguably, U Tin Oo, a former commander of the Burmese armed forces and a highly decorated soldier, would be considered reasonably senior in the tatmadaw hierarchy to command respect among his parliamentarian colleagues, particularly those from the military. His name is also a distinct improvement on the earlier rumour of the NLD fielding Dr Tin Myo Win, Suu Kyi’s personal physician as a possible presidential candidate. But the fact remains that U Tin Oo is 88 years old and had earlier declined the possibility of his becoming President citing health reasons. Unfortunately the NLD, even after 27 years of its formation, remains a single-woman party, drawing almost all of its considerable legitimacy from the iconic status of its leader. A quickly drawn succession plan and some careful nurturing of second rung leaders are urgent requirements. Diehard optimists are of course still willing to put their money on a last minute amendment of the 2008 Constitution so that Suu Kyi can take over as President or an eventual amendment while the NLD holds power so that U Tin Oo can hand over the baton to Suu Kyi reasonably soon.
Bringing up the rear of the rainbow is a pandora’s box of problems, social, economic and political ones which the tatmadaw-backed USDP has been struggling with since 2012. Of course at the top of the heap is the complex ethnic question. Just before the 8th of November elections the government was successful in signing a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement which unfortunately is not as inclusive as it should have been with only half of the recognised ethnic groups deigning to put their signatures on the dotted line. While pro-NLD newspapers of Myanmar celebrate the election results with headlines such as, Ethnic Parties left hanging on the phone for NLD coalition offer, the ethnic parties in question are already sending out warning signals. Wirathu, the face of the radical Buddhist 969 movement (which has evolved into the far more structured and hierarchical Ma Ba Tha and with which there are ugly rumours of the USDP being hand in glove) has expressed doubt in the NLD’s capability to govern and has warned that he will actively protect the 4 race and religion laws which were passed earlier this year and which are quite clearly aimed at restricting the rights of the Muslim community of Myanmar. The Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), a coalition of 23 ethnic parties, is apprehensive that the NLD’s single party dominance in the parliament will mean ethnic issues taking a backseat.
To be fair to Aung San Suu Kyi, her party has repeatedly invited ethnic minorities to the negotiating table and yet it is also true that the NLD continues to be perceived as a Bamar-centric party and Suu Kyi as a pro-Buddhist-Burmese. She has been criticised for a certain lack of judgement in her repeated references to certain cultural symbols and ideas based on which the Bamar-dominant ‘official’ history of Myanmar has been constructed, first by the post-independence AFPFL-led government and later by the successive military governments and which often disregard the complexity of the country’s ethnic history. While it is true that Myanmar, situated as it is on the fault lines of Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu civilisations, needs to exercise caution, it is also true that the centrality of the ethnic question needs to be recognised if true nation building is to happen. And of course after the question of national reconciliation comes the rest of the list – the economy which has never really taken off, the Rohingya citizenship issue which was shelved in deference to electoral sentiment, the education bill which was passed much against the will of the intelligentsia, the Myitsone Dam project which continues to rankle.
But for the moment and despite misgivings, let us say que sera sera. Let us find consolation in the thought that Myanmar at least has a leader in whom her citizens can place implicit trust. That is perhaps more than what can be said of other thriving democracies of Asia. Let us join in the celebrations: there are few such moments when one sees such joie de vivre as history completes a circle. Let the skeletons rattle away in the closet and let us instead place our faith in the woman who has made this possible; let us place our faith in the people of Myanmar who despite their past have repeatedly risen to the challenge. Let the future be, let the past rest with its memories of a post-independence civilian government which witnessed the country spiral into chaos.
For the moment idealism seems sweet and let us raise a toast to those flowers at the nape of the neck and that unfaltering smile:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
“I’d not give room for an Emperor, I’d hold my road for a King.
To the Triple Crown I’d not bow down,
but this is a different thing!
I’ll not fight with the Powers of Air, sentry, pass him through!
Drawbridge let fall, he’s the lord of us all
The Dreamer whose dream came true!”
*U Vinaya also known as Thamanya Saya-daw
Nilanjana Sengupta is the author of the recently published, The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi, (Cambridge University Press, 2015, ISBN: 9781107117860)