Michael Sullivan made many trips to Myanmar, also known as Burma, when he was NPR’s correspondent for Southeast Asia. He recently returned, and found a country changing at a dizzying pace.
I get off the plane and almost immediately feel like I’ve come to the wrong country. There’s a large blue sign at immigration that reads: “Attention journalists covering the by-election: please register at the Media Counter.”
“Media Counter”? My kind has never been welcome here.
It’s the first surprise in a trip full of them.
The Unimaginable Come True
Hip-hop songs — urgent, defiant, imploring — are almost common these days.
“Get Up, Myanmar,” one of them commands. “Get up!”
The unofficial translation? Support Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
In my Myanmar, also known as Burma, recording a song like this even a year ago would have been a fast track to jail. But on this visit, I hear songs like it everywhere — though not in government-controlled media or sold openly in stores, where they’re still banned.
In my Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi — the Nobel laureate and pro-democracy icon — wasn’t allowed out of her house, let alone into parliament, where her party took 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs on April 1. In my Myanmar, Suu Kyi wasn’t allowed to speak in public.
And yet, on the day after the election, there she was, before thousands of supporters at NLD headquarters — not gloating, but speaking of the need for healing.
“We also hope that we’ll be able to go further along the road to national reconciliation,” she told supporters. “We would welcome all parties who would wish to join us in bringing peace and prosperity to our country.”
In my Myanmar, such a speech was unimaginable. And for a people whose neck has been under the heel of the military for so long, this election — and the run-up to it — was a chance to breathe, openly and gleefully, for the first time in decades. And boy, did they grab it.
No Fear, Pure Joy
In Mandalay the night before the election, jubilant supporters of Suu Kyi filled the streets. Sounds of celebration — music, whistles, honking — filled the air. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
The last time I saw so many people in the streets here was in September 2007, during the monk-led Saffron Revolution, when monks took to the streets en masse to march peacefully for political change.
Back then, you could feel the excitement — but also apprehension — as people waited for the military to crush the monks — which it did, savagely, here in Yangon and elsewhere.
But this time? No fear, just pure joy.
The next day, a prominent businessman asked me, incredulously, “Did you see that?”
“I’m 45 years old, and I’ve never witnessed anything like it. And the military was nowhere to be seen,” he said, smiling, shaking his head in wonder.
Genie Is Out Of The Bottle
In Yangon, in another sign of the times, workers — busy as Santa’s elves — churn out NLD desk flags, T-shirts and other paraphernalia at a small shop near Shwedagon Pagoda.
The same shop once sold government flags and military insignia. Not anymore, the shop owner says gleefully. He can’t stop grinning. I ask him if any of this would have been possible a year ago.
He laughs and crosses his wrists, mimicking being led away in handcuffs. No way, he says.
Now, he says, he can’t make this stuff fast enough. And nobody’s come to bother him — not yet, anyway.
Even the musician playing in the lobby of the elegant Strand Hotel, a colonial-era icon, seems to have a bit of a spring in his step. In my Myanmar, this hotel felt more like a morgue, the music a funeral dirge.
All of this, of course, could change in a heartbeat. President Thein Sein’s decision to free Suu Kyi may yet backfire if government hard-liners rebel, especially after last week’s humiliating defeat.
It could be a problem for Aung San Suu Kyi if changes come too slowly — or not at all.
But this isn’t my Myanmar anymore. Nor is it the military’s. The genie is out of the bottle, for whatever reason. And it’s going to be very, very difficult to put back in.