Wednesday, 17 November 2010 23:46 Shwe Shwe
Rangoon (Mizzima) – The most common answer on the streets of Rangoon to the question of how soon the impact of a free Aung San Suu Kyi will be felt is “immediately”. Unfortunately, it is a response likely grounded in a moment of hope and rather irrespective of the current situation inside Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi addresses thousands outside National League for Democracy headquarters in Rangoon on November 14, 2010. While extensive media presence captured the events of November 13 and 14, ensuing days have seen security tightened and those still lingering in the form of Suu Kyi paparazzi placed under increasing scrutiny. Photo: Mizzima.
With the euphoria surrounding the release on Saturday of Burma’s opposition leader, followed by a gathering well into the thousands to hear her speak the following day, speculation among Rangoon observers was that the regime had possibly miscalculated in releasing the Nobel laureate.
However, the initial stages of the release having passed, the reality of the situation on the ground has readily asserted itself. While an extensive media presence, domestic and international, captured the events of November 13 and 14 – as the regime expected to happen, relaying the message of their “goodwill” to the world – ensuing days have seen security tightened, the media spotlight having moved on and those still lingering in the form of Suu Kyi paparazzi placed under increasing scrutiny.
Moreover, the headquarters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party – officially a non-existent entity – following the press conference of November 14 has exuded more the air of a provincial Nepalese medical post, with visitors of various origins freely coming and going, milling around and hoping for at least a brief visage of “Aunty” and some kind of remedy to appear from the barren cupboards.
As with the gross disparity in electoral resources witnessed by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), those of the state dominate resources at the disposal of the NLD; a single phone line, not always operational, services the party’s office needs. Accordingly, though Suu Kyi speaks of the advent of “true” democracy as depending “very much on how much support the people give us”, the elephant in the room clearly remains the Burmese security sector.
Views from the streets
In Rangoon, hardly anyone spoken to approves of the current condition of the country. A pervading apathy regarding politics, and elections specifically, is the order of the day beyond the highly politicised branches of the NLD, its splinter group, the National Democratic Force (NDF), and those basing political allegiance squarely on the dubious shoulders of identity politics.
Hushed voices, and sometimes the not so hushed, everywhere greet the visitor as to the deplorable situation Burma’s citizenry has been exposed to by the diktats of the country’s generals. The overtures can sometimes border on the absurd, such as a comment on the innate beauty of the United States flag compared with the ugly new flag of Burma which one restaurateur claims “nobody in country like”.
The people, comments one politically active professional, are not just excited about Suu Kyi, they are looking to support anything that offers a deviation from the country’s present trajectory. The feeling, he suspects, is a mixture of pro-Suu Kyi and anti-junta.
A non-voter, out of apathy, and non-attendee of Suu Kyi’s public address offers a complemental assessment. According to this businessman, it is not just about getting democracy for Burma.
The problem, he says, is that Burma’s government only looks to itself, whereas other governments, while still looking after their own interests, also look to the needs of the people. “We have no health care, no education, no insurance,” he laments.
“Any government is okay, as long as they do their best. But right now they do not,” he added. Asked if he would support the new parliament as comprised if it showed it looked to “do its best”, the answer came quickly: “Yes, of course.”
It is difficult to judge just how deep such a sentiment lies in the Burmese political body, but for many in Rangoon it remains impossible to see past the monumental personage of Suu Kyi.
An unemployed Muslim who lives near Rangoon University with his wife and four children and who was an eager onlooker during the events of Sunday in which Suu Kyi greeted her faithful, reflects a view of the opposition leader bordering on a sort of civilian messiah.
Why do you like her so much? “Because she is the daughter of our first king,” replied the wiry man with betel-stained teeth, obviously assigning the title of first king to Suu Kyi’s father, independence hero General Aung San.
While Suu Kyi would no doubt cringe at the thought of her father being considered the first monarch of a new Burmese empire, it is not a unique sentiment and an image, speaking of the lineage and not the misappropriated royal title, actively cultivated by “The Lady” and her party.
In a taxi en route to NLD headquarters, the driver inquired if I was aware that her father was a king of Burma. Meanwhile, a giant billboard depicting a portrait of Suu Kyi with her late father in military garb slightly in the background gazed upon all those in attendance on Sunday. And the inner sanctum of the NLD office is adorned with various murals depicting both father and daughter.
An infatuation with revisiting past events, specifically in this case the inauspicious assassination of Aung San and colleagues just prior to independence, continues to weave its way throughout the posturing of Suu Kyi’s party.
Despite unquestioned charisma and oratorical skills, the policies of Suu Kyi have in the past been criticised for being uncompromising to the point of frustrating gradual change. The politically active professional shares the concern, but is yet hopeful that it will not be allowed to obstruct future gains.
“I worry about that too. But, she also says she does not want a Suu Kyi dictatorship,” he affirmed, stressing that any movement forward depends both on Suu Kyi and the military-backed government.
From the streets, people in the wake of Suu Kyi’s release are yet looking … hoping, and generally form a far more politically diversified bloc than might be expected – any broad unification today would have to be said to be grounded in apathy.
By far the most challenging question posed to those consulted regarded the amount of patience people would have for Suu Kyi to demonstrate a tangible gain. That, it was said by virtually all approached, would “depend”.
A major factor in the potential impact of Suu Kyi on the greater Burmese political body will be her ability to travel freely throughout the country. Rangoon, despite heavily censored media, is largely aware of proceedings, but speculation is that most of the country remains largely ignorant. And, if the impact of recent happenings in Rangoon on Burma’s outlying communities is any indication, it is likely an opinion borne of realism.
Those canvassed were unanimous in their expectation that Suu Kyi’s travel beyond Rangoon would be tightly controlled. Even in Rangoon, comments one student, she is not free to do whatever she likes or speak wherever she likes. Freedom, and one look no further than the motley collection of characters at her party’s headquarters, is still a much-qualified term.
Having been largely shut out from her supporters – domestic and foreign, at home and abroad – for the last seven years, it will also be vital for Suu Kyi to recover her own voice and assert control and direction over her party and supporters. A clear and enforced policy platform regarding contentious issues would also aid in determining if dialogue with the country’s generals is possible. The multitude of voices that have insinuated to speak on her behalf must be subsumed within her true aspirations and interpretations.
As for her personal popularity and following, a sizable core of supporters, and not without good reason, can be expected to remain loyal and follow The Lady wherever she may lead. Upon leaving the festivities on Sunday, a boy in a miniature replica of the pale orange jackets worn by NLD central executive committee members walked alongside his father and, camera focused, launched his fist into the air; a clear indication that Suu Kyi, her party and politically faithful are not leaving the Burmese political scene any time soon.
However, true gains respective of Burma’s political landscape will likely only be realised with the advent of visible gains on the ground and in the lives of the Burmese people, who are ready to jump back on the “Suu Kyi bandwagon” but have grown weary of a domestic landscape void of results as epitomised by this month’s much-maligned general election.