“What do you mean you didn’t go to the Shwedagon pagoda?!?”
(Written by Steph)
A city was never going to be our favourite thing. We arrived in Yangon on the train from Mawlaminye, another pretty thankless destination, to stoney faces and zero personality. It’s not to say people here weren’t friendly exactly, but cities have a habit of doing that to people. After the illuminated faces of Hpa-an, “come-down” was the phrase.
Yangon used to be the capital. Ask people if it still is, and you get mixed answers. Generally the consensus is that, no, it is not, but the new capital, Naypyitaw, is as unlike a capital as you’ve seen. It’s new and shiny, sure, but hardly anyone lives there. No, Yangon definitely had the feel of a capital.
“What did you do in Yangon?” We had asked many a traveller in Myanmar. The answer always had one common factor – The Shwedagon Pagoda. I’m sure it’s impressive, I’m sure it’s beautiful, historical things happened there, but I wanted to see history in the people – not in the buildings. I was lucky in my partnership with Nick that we were on the same page. We love to experience the nature in different places, including that of the people. Monuments, temples, pagodas…? Meh.
We skipped the site-seeing on the Saturday, but it wasn’t time for us to move on just yet. Nick, savvy googler that he is, had discovered that there was to be a rally held by the National League for Democracy (NLD) here in Yangon. I didn’t know anything about the NLD, but I knew that their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a democratic hero to this country. With an election approaching, arguably the most important Myanmar election to date, here was an opportunity to experience history in the making rather than centuries later.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the military:
Myanmar, formerly named Burma under the British rule, has a complicated and tumultuous history, and not one that I can pretend to comprehend. My, perhaps crude, synopsis is that, after gaining independence from the British in 1948, the country struggled to find its feet amidst clashes of power, ethnic groups and ideologies.The first years of independence were marked by successive insurgencies. In 1962, dictator U Ne Win staged a military Coup and took over the country.
U Ne Win, having decided that he would abolish all currency notes not divisable by 9, which was his lucky number, proved himself to be a superstitious idiot as well as a tyrant. The people of Myanmar, subsequently bankrupt, were disillusioned and yearned for change. This led to one of the most memorable days in Myanmar’s history – “The 8888 Uprising”. On 8th August, 1988, thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protests. They were met with open gunfire, which culminated in the loss of over 3000 lives. U Ne Win outwardly turned the country over to the rule of the military, while in reality he merely stayed in the shadows, their relentless puppeteer of torture and illegal arrest.
This same year Aung San Suu Kyi, having studied in Oxford and lived abroad for years, returned to Myanmar. She was to become a voice of hope for the people, denouncing the junta and standing up for human rights. It was to earn her the right to 15 years, on and off, of being placed under house arrest, cut off from the eager ears of the people. Giving up the chance of going free, based on the condition that she left the country, she sent a strong message to both those in power and to the people – she would not rest until democracy reigned, even if it meant sacrificing her own freedom.
In 2013 Aung San Suu Kyi, now released from house arrest, registered to run as a political candidate for the NLD. They had won an election in 1990, with a landslide 80% of the votes, but the military junta only ignored the results. The election that was to take place on 8th November, 2015, a week after this rally, was meant to be different. This time the people had Aung San Suu Kyi…and they were not taking no for an answer.
The NLD Rally, 2015:
I was slightly nervous about this rally. The history of their relationship with the governing military didn’t fill me with confidence. Finding it would be the next issue. It was due to take place in a huge park in the centre, but this proposed venue had been downsized just a few days before the event. We can only assume this was designed to discourage too many people from going. Well that didn’t work…
It took a while to find someone that knew what was going on. Everyone knew about Aung San Suu Kyi, but not about the rally. When we said her name, our taxi driver wanted to take us to the house where she had spent all those years under house arrest, also in Yangon. That might have been interesting to some, but we wanted to see Aung San Suu Kyi, not her empty house.
We arrived to streets full of red – the colour of the NLD. The Traffic was heavy crossing the bridge to where we needed to go, and our taxi driver, tutting and sighing (obviously not an NLD supporter) dropped us off way before the destination. We had only been walking two minutes when a guy noticed us. Fair to say we stuck out a bit. For a start, Nick was several heads taller than the tallest Burmese man. He was so happy that someone outside his country had come to show support for them. Immediately he took us under his wing and insisted on buying us a drink. We joined with the crowds moving forwards like a carnival procession. All around us, decorated floats with huge speakers and groups singing. On the ground, children doing choreographed dances and singing songs with such steely passion, I thought they must be about freedom. Further on and another group of older men dancing around joyously and with total abandon. It was a week away from the election, and yet, not hope, but celebration, was in the air. The people were not going to entertain another outcome.
Our (my) primary concern had been that the rally might attract fierce vigilance from the military, and our support might not go down too well. We needn’t have worried – we saw a total of one policeman the whole day! Not what you would expect, especially given the history of the military here. The other thing was that we knew that Suu Kyi was coming to do a talk. In Burmese. Our four new sentences were not going to go very far. Little did we know that the run up would be so electric. Having kitted ourselves out in NLD headbands, and stuck stickers to every inch of free skin, we almost looked the part, although considerably less cool than the others.
“These guys know that Aung San Suu Kyi is the famous one, right? ”
We were part way down the long road that led to the rally, but we were stuck. Not in mud, not in traffic, but in photos. Our photo session with the monks in the bat cave in Hpa-An was evidently just a taster of what awaited us here. Crowds gathered to take photos of us with their friends, then with them, then with their mum, and their uncle, and their second cousin three times removed. By which time 10 other phones were pointed at us and we had to do the same thing again. It was fun, and not wanting to be rude, we obliged, but it was pretty surreal to be the ones being photographed. It wasn’t until we got home and looked at our photos that we realised we didn’t actually have that many. How was that possible? we thought. We must have been there for 30 minutes having photos taken…but all on other people’s phones. The tables had turned – now we knew what it felt like to be a tourist attraction!
“May Suu! May Suu! May Suu!”
Huge lines of linked arms lined the road, 3 deep and holding tightly. It reminded me of a pop concert or something, and as Suu Kyi’s car approached, I half expected the screaming fans to surge forward and ask for an autograph. That didn’t happen, but she was a hero, for sure. The chants, meaning “Mother Suu!” said it all.
The NLD won the election on the 8th November 2015, but the military still retain 25% of the seats. Legally, Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to be president, owing to the fact that she married a non Burmese national. This is written into the constitution and would take a military constituent to change. Suu Kyi, however, has since given many interviews in which she makes it very clear that she intends to rule. She is fearless in the face of the oppostion, and steadfast in her goal for democracy.