by Nilanjana Sengupta
Last night I returned to Singapore after spending a few days in Myanmar. I had gone expecting to find a country basking in the golden glow of post-election euphoria with perhaps red and yellow NLD banners festooned across city streets. Instead, both Yangon and Mandalay appeared strangely sterilised, scrubbed clean of any remaining signs of the election. And there was a palpable sense of nervous waiting, almost as if the country hung on the edge of a cliff. When I congratulated a friend on the election victory, she merely nodded and looked away, allowing an uncomfortable silence to hang between us and when I asked another if Daw Suu had visited Mandalay for campaigning he hurriedly replied, “No, no she didn’t have to” and changed the topic. I realised the election was a subject best left un-broached: there was too much at stake, too many years of hopes and dreams impossible to be articulated in a few words.
I could not help but think of yet another period of strange interregnum documented by so many Burmese authors – the period between around mid-August to 18 September 1988. That had been immediately after the nation-wide general strike of 8 August 1988 or shit lay-lon. On 12 August 1988 the hardliner Sein Lwin had stepped down and the more moderate academic, Dr Maung Maung had taken over and what had followed was a brief period of free press even as the nation waited for a transfer of power and a multi-party democracy. Ludu Daw Amar, one of the most revered writers of Myanmar was 73 years old then and had picked up her journalist’s pen after some twenty odd years. Gathering the scattered team of the Ludu publishing house around her and accompanied by her youngest son, Nyi Pu Lay, she had started a daily paper called 8888. In the paper her team reported on the mass movement raging across the country, of the student leader Min Ko Naing’s speeches at Yangon, of the broadcast schedules of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches which were to be aired at the Win Light Cinema of Mandalay. But it was Daw Amar who wrote the editorials for 8888. The inhabitants of Mandalay, long starved of her political writing on Burma, readily recognised her style. At that time Daw Amar had written of the need of the Burmese people to stand firm in their convictions and stand united – both the Burmese and the ethnic communities together. In her characteristic way she had drawn an analogy from the jataka tales, writing of the bodhisattva quail that helped a whole flock of quails escape the hunter’s net by advising them to fly in unison. I wished for her presence in this stressful time as well, so sustenance could be drawn from the strength of her voice.