January 25, 2020
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Myanmar Diary

Democracy tourism has come to Myanmar. Most Yangon hotels had signs offering a day trip to watch Suu Kyi vote

Myanmar Diary

Yangon Street Jam

Election night outside the National League of Democracy (NLD) headquarters in the heart of Yangon, the street was a sea of red (the NLD party colour). Every time a giant screen on the roof flashed a win for the NLD, a DJ would cue one of the party’s highly infectious anthems and the crowd would go wild. And yet it was a pure, almost gentle energy. Families, students, office workers waved Aung San Suu Kyi banners, cheered, danced and took time off to explain to the world press the current leads position. In the near distance, the beams from a searchlight lit up the outlines of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Could there be a better staging of that enchanted moment when democracy, however nascent, makes an arrival? Yes, this was a byelection to only 45 seats, less than 10 per cent of the national parliament. But it was a byelection necessitated by a clause in the Myanmarese constitution that mandates a separation between the executive and the legislature. This means all MPs elected in the 2010 national polls and who were appointed to high office—the President, cabinet ministers, the attorney general and so on—have to resign. And so the NLD, a party that spent two decades in political exile, and most of whose leadership have been in prison, was winning seats vacated by some of the seniormost politicians of Myanmar’s military-backed regime. A young woman called San Dar Min, an NLD activist recently released from jail, won the seat vacated by the president of Myanmar, U Thein Sein. The seat of vice president Tin Aung Myint Oo was won by rapper Zayar Thaw! Both seats are in Naypyidaw, the spanking new capital built by the military regime four hours north of Yangon, where most voters are retired army personnel or government servants. As it turned out, the NLD swept all four seats from Naypyidaw. The intricate psephology came (a slightly hungover) morning after. That night, most of the 300-strong press pack allowed in to cover the elections, including your diarist, threw journalistic scepticism to the wind and got down to hits like Wake Up Myanmar and Go NLD. YouTube links to both (the tracks, not the ungainly dancing) can be provided on request.

The Road to Wa Thin Ka

Aung San Suu Kyi chose to spend the night before voting day in a tiny village in her constituency. Wa Thin Ka is close to the tip of the Irrawaddy Delta, a region of great poverty, in striking contrast to a rapidly modernising Yangon. It is also dominated by the Karen, one of Myanmar’s restive and neglected tribal communities. As an act of political symbolism, her choice was unerring. Except, no one had warned the people of Wa Thin Ka that she would have as company a large and unruly press entourage. After we’d filmed her chaotic, sweaty arrival, we searched out digs for the night. Helpful locals guided us to the sprawling home of the village headman. Or headwoman, as it were. The redoubtable matriarch did not speak a word of English, but under her benign gaze, it can be divulged, representatives of NDTV, the New York Times, and sundry French freelancers were duly handed out Burmese lungis so they could bathe, village style, from a water tank behind the house before falling asleep in an airy loft.

Members Only

Our last night, we hit the imaginatively named Sports Bar on Pale Road. We are told the club was owned by “one of the regime cronies”. Which one? No one seemed sure. There’s Te Za, whose Htoo Group, with interests in aviation, hotels, timber and gems, has an estimated worth at $500 million. Za, the US treasury department says, is “an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma’s repressive junta”. Snapping at his heels is Zaw Zaw, described in a leaked October 2009 US embassy cable as an “up-and-coming regime crony (whose) business interests include a cement plant, a trading company, a jade mine, a rubber plantation and a professional soccer team”. The cable says that “contacts confirm that Zaw Zaw hired the grandson of Senior General Than Shwe (Myanmar’s patriarch) to play on the team”. To take the edge off this sobering piece of information, we order a fresh round of the local concoction. Then, it’s pointed out that the brewery was part-owned by the junta in a JV with a Singapore-based firm.

Democracy Is In

In the media scrum outside the NLD office, you were just as likely to be knocked down by a burly Sky News cameraman as by a visiting couple from Wales armed with an iPhone. Democracy tourism has come to Myanmar. Most Yangon hotels had put up signs at their front desks offering a day trip + lunch to watch Suu Kyi vote in her constituency. On the pavements, the bestselling We Must Win T-shirts vanished overnight. A new batch popped up the day after the results, bearing the same design: Suu Kyi and the NLD’s fighting peacock symbol. Except with a new slogan: “We Are Winners.”

Last Week

At Aung San Suu Kyi’s press conference, to a question asking her to rank how close Myanmar is to democracy on a scale of one to ten, her reply: “We are getting to one.”

Sreenivasan Jain Hosts the ground reportage show Truth vs Hype on NDTV 24x7. E-mail your diarist: vasu AT NDTV.com

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