We were lucky enough to be in Mandalay for a historic event: a by-election in which Aung San Suu Kyi ran for a parliamentary seat, the first election she has stood in since 1990. There were 44 parliamentary seats being contested by her party, the National League for Democracy. We started spotting tee-shirts and other Suu Kyi gear for sale as soon as we got to Myanmar, but as Election Day approached, we began to see a pro-NLD tee-shirt on almost every other person.
On election day, there was a great energy in the air in Mandalay, the country’s second biggest city. Excitement and hope were in the air. Around 6 pm, after the polls had closed, we started walking around town. Everyone was out, sitting on street corners, in front of their shops, riding their motorbikes around town, many with huge red NLD flags flying from the rear of their bikes. As people saw us walking by wearing our Suu Kyi tee-shirts and NLD headbands, they looked genuinely surprised and excited to see foreign supporters. They grinned, pointed us out to each other, and we would all cheer, laugh, and thumbs-up together.
Not long after we began to wander, a young man pulled up next to us on his motorbike and told us (in perfect English) that so far, the NLD was projected to win 42 out of 44 seats! We high-fived with him and from then on, the celebratory mood began to mount. We grabbed a couple beers and some delicious grilled meats at a beer garden, and then headed to the Mustache Brothers headquarters.
The Mustache Brothers are an a nyeint troupe, practicing a historical blend of jokes, song, and dance; the closest comparison is probably a vaudeville variety show. The brothers are also outspoken opponents of the military regime; two out of the three of them spent six years in jail as political prisoners, but they still present their show every night, unintimidated.
It should not have been a surprise then, that when we arrived, they were blasting a folk song about Aung San Suu Kyi and there were trucks and motorbikes full of NLD supporters on the street decked out in their NLD gear. People were dancing, hugging, cheering, and generally ecsatic about the presumed win. Lu Maw, the main Mustache Brother (and the only one who really speaks English), pulled us up on the balcony to watch the scene from above, treating us as special guests. This is just one example of how the Burmese were constantly treating us like royalty. After some more celebratory dancing, the Brothers put on their show, which was a wacky mix of singing, dancing, cracks at the government, costume changes, and English idioms (Lu Maw has a better grasp on these than Claudia does, which perhaps isn’t saying too much, but still!). The performance is done in his house, with a couple dozen audience members sitting on plastic chairs in his “living room”.
After the hour-long act, Lu Maw invited us back across the street to continue the celebration. While the street had calmed down during the performance, as we left the show, several trucks and tons of motorbikes full of revelers arrived almost immediately: a much larger and even more energetic crowd than before! It is difficult to put into words the energy in the air, but we were greatly moved by seeing everyone genuinely thrilled at the results and excited at what this meant for their country. Pride, hope, exuberance, and a sense of great achievement beamed from every man, woman and child’s face. And the funny thing was, even though this was completely their celebration and we were expecting to be invisible spectators from the sidelines, they kept pulling us in to dance and cheer with them, as if we had done something to help achieve their victory by merely being present. They thanked us for being there and they loved that we were showing our support. They even gave us gifts: a little boy in the back of a truck gave me the NLD headband off his head; two women approached us and pinned an NLD pin on each of our shirts; another woman stuck her hand out of a truck and gave me a sprig of green leaves. We were incredibly humbled. Here we were at their celebration–a huge moment in their history–and they were treating us like the special guests of the evening!
The celebrations that day and the days to follow reminded us a bit of the energy and hope in the streets on and after Election Day 2008 in the US, when Barack Obama won the presidency: so many people coming togather, hopeful for the future, and proud that their country is finally taking a step in the right direction. Smiles stretched ear to ear, cheering and honking filled the streets as everyone basked in the triumph. This was a huge moment for Myanmar, a country where less than five years ago, a gathering of more than five people was illegal and where the government responded to open support for an opponent and calls for change with violence against its own citizens.
While we all know that things in Myanmar won’t change overnight, the fact that this election was held, that the NLD overwhelmingly won, and that Aung San Suu Kyi will soon be taking a seat in the parliament are huge signs of progress, and indications of steps in the right direction. The strong, generous, and graceful citizens of Myanmar deserve as much hope and positive change as possible. We will never forget what an amazing experience it was to see the people of Myanmar celebrate their well-deserved victory.