[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he year was 1998. I was on a visit to a small town called Moreh in Manipur. I was accompanied by my friend Rongtia who stayed in Imphal and it was in her house that I had put up. The trip to Moreh had been born of the wish to visit the border town from where one could supposedly just walk into Myanmar. I had already been to Thimpu in Bhutan and had curiously watched the easy inflow of Indians and Bhutanese people travelling to and fro between the border gates, mingling freely, adapting to each other’s culture and retaining a curious mix of both.
Moreh was still a small bustling town in 1998; a curious mix of people dominated the town. Construction of the India-Myanmar Friendship Road was underway and there was palpable bonhomie amongst the people. Traders flocked along the small roads, some sporting straw hats like the ones you tend to see in pictures from glossy travel magazines supposedly taken in the green fields of Myanmar. Across the road that led to Myanmar, a few security personnel stood casually talking to people, checking their ids. On a lamp post close to where the guard stood was plastered a colourful poster with the face of Aung San Suu Kyi prominently displayed on it. I remember walking up to inspect the poster and touching it out of sheer curiosity as if it would reveal a little more about the leader whose geographical proximity here lent credence to the stories one had heard so many times over.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) leader had, of course, by then been in and out of house arrest several times; her son had received the Nobel on her behalf and her popularity had reached its zenith. From a nearby tea stall, a man said something while looking at us. Rongtia looked at him, smiled and nodded. “Madam likes yellow roses with fragrance,” she translated. Reams had been written about this Nobel laureate and yet somehow it is the small things that remain with us, I thought then. The NLD led by Suu Kyi had already won the general election by a large margin in 1990, but the results had been nullified by the military junta, which rendered the entire electoral process redundant. Suu Kyi’s house arrest, however, continued till 2010, in spite of tremendous pressure from the international community for her release. A civilian government has been functioning in the country since then under the watch of the military. In the meantime, some reforms have come in and the country has somewhat bettered economically. This, in turn, has lead to the growth of a small section of wealthy middle class in spite of the largely poor nation, which surprisingly has a high literacy rate. While the country has gradually opened up to some political reform, the military has also ensured that the Constitution remains framed according to their convenience. On a parallel track, Suu Kyi’s growth as a leader had been tremendous. If politics today is about symbols, somewhere she has emerged as the strongest symbol for the Burmese democratic movement in its fight against the military regime that has dominated Myanmar for many years now.
Yesterday Myanmar faced yet another election, one that is of tremendous importance to the people of that country, some of whom have been fighting the battle for democracy for the longest time. The results are awaited. Suu Kyi, while urging people to vote for the future of the country and the well-being of future generations, has described this election as the most important since the Burmese independence. But despite the fact that the NLD looks poised for a massive victory (if ground reports are to be believed), even an absolute majority in the 2015 election would mean that they still have to contend with members of the army, which has reserved almost a quarter of the seats in Parliament along with some of the most powerful ministerial portfolios assigned to it.
Her immense countrywide popularity notwithstanding, Suu Kyi faces huge challenges that lie ahead. Negotiating peace and unity with different minority groups within the population, easing out the military rule with a truly meaningful democratic process — even while the Constitution and Parliament remain dominated by them — amendment of the Constitution, tackling the rising voices of religious dissent and the overall constant threat of a possible return of military rule are factors that make this process a delicate stepping stone for Suu Kyi and her party.
I watch an enthusiastic Suu Kyi wind up her electoral campaign hours before the country goes in for voting; she is surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic supporters cheering and waving red flags even as her car slowly makes its way through the rally of people gathered around. I’m reminded of her early days and the meetings she held from the gate of her house on the University Avenue beside the Inya Lake while she was still under house arrest. I had heard several accounts from my Burmese friends during our university days about the scattered nature of crowds that gathered in front of her home with a general air of happy curiosity about them. The bonhomie that surrounds the frail-looking leader seems genuine even today. There is laughter, curiosity, hope and lots of cheering as the leader easily mingles with the crowds, touches their hands from time to time and waves at them. Daw San Suu Kyi, as she is called in Myanmar, is an attractive figure even on the television screen. My mind takes me back to the shopkeeper’s comments about her love for flowers, even as I see her sitting in a television studio, ready to face the interviewer in her brightly coloured sarong, bright flowers and a gentle smile. For most people, Suu Kyi manages to portray a visual rhetoric of a strong yet graceful, cultural and political image — one that has been consistent over the years. Her body language resonates with that of Burma’s rich and ancient culture — one that is diametrically opposite to that of the military’s dictatorial tendencies and grim vision. Looking at her, you realise that, whether it is her traditional (yet smart) attire, or the flowers in her hair, her smiling presence, her subtle sense of humour, or her underlying intelligence — all of it matters a lot to a world hung on such imagery and the associated conclusions that are drawn from it. In the case of Suu Kyi, of course, her image and political ambitions happily coincide with that of democracy ushering into her country, thankfully not belittling her tremendous tragic personal sacrifices that have been part of this journey.
As she surges forward towards a new era in Myanmar’s history and what might well be a historic win for herself and her party — and mostly for the democratic process and its stability in Burma — it remains to be seen whether the support that has so far been shown by the Western media and elsewhere for Suu Kyi translates into a more realistic political and economic support once the NLD finds itself at the helm of things in Myanmar. In terms of what such a win could mean for Myanmar, its citizens and other ethnic groups within the country, it would perhaps be safe to quote Suu Kyi in this matter, when she says that she would be reaching out to all other parties even if her party wins a majority since she thinks it is necessary for the future of the country — because the party believes in a government process that is based on national reconciliation.
India has maintained its relations with Myanmar through the years; some years better shaped this diplomacy than the others. And though in the past Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken about her disappointment at India’s hesitant stance at the support shown for her party and the process of democracy, as she calls it, her recent interviews have shown her as keen on maintaining the friendly and warm relations that she has shared with India in the past. The elections in Myanmar hold special value for India in diplomatic terms, considering the fact that historically and culturally the two countries have shared common interests in terms of a constant flux of people shifting bases between the two as well as rising business interests between its people. Amidst other things, the infiltration of antinational outfits like the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) seeking shelter in Myanmar has been a rising concern for New Delhi. An issue that has figured in Suu Kyi’s interviews to different media houses in India.
Whether Myanmar votes on 8 November for a more democratic form of government, and whether Aung San Suu Kyi heads the government there, would make a difference to the ties between the two nations. It goes without saying that as the largest democracy in the world, India has perhaps a thing or two to observe, share and learn from the entire process as a nation that has not only survived the democratic process many times over, but also thrives on it, while encouraging others to head in similar directions and follow better paths.
Featured image: National League for Democracy chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi leaves after delivering a speech during a voter education campaign at Mawlamyinegyun township in the Irrawaddy Division on 26 July. While her National League for Democracy (NLD) party is expected to triumph at key elections, Suu Kyi's pathway to the presidency is blocked by a controversial clause in Myanmar's junta-era constitution. AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung Thu