by Justin Shoub, writing from Yangon, Burma
When I first arrived in Burma in March, I found that most people I spoke to were feeling somewhat ambivalent about the impending by-election and prospects for real change happening. I began to get the impression that after 5 decades of military rule, most people didn’t want to ‘get their hopes up.’ One taxi driver said to me, “this is all just a trick. They want your money – they want to open up to the world, but they will never give up power.” Others expressed that they thought that the shift towards democracy genuinely had begun, but they made clear that it was just the beginning; the process would be gradual, that change wouldn’t come suddenly. It seemed they did not want to set their expectations too high.
On the eve of the election however, people’s hope finally shone through, and even boiled over into full-on public excitement. The yellow-on-red flag of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was everywhere – on t-shirts, on stickers stuck to people’s faces, and flown from poles on the backs of motorbikes. A tired-looking man in his mid-40s, stuck in traffic, was looking glazed-over and frustrated. But when he saw me pull up beside him as he looked out his truck window, his eyes widened and he began chanting ‘Aung San Suu Kyi! NLD! NLD!’ fervently, as though I had reminded him suddenly of the need to feel excited. In a telling echo of the 2007 ‘saffron revolution’ protests, I saw a large group of monks spilling out of the back of a pickup truck, all waving massive NLD flags and chanting with great enthusiasm. The fact that monks would again abandon the dictum of avoiding participation in politics to show their support of the NLD is a strong sign that the by-election is widely seen by the people here as the most important marker on the road to real political change in Burma so far.