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<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Aung San Suu Kyi gives a press conference at her home in Yangon.

Suu Kyi, Take Your Seat

By-elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament have delighted the world. But Myanmar’s political transformation is far from over.


Whenever there have been outbursts of hope in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, they have been short-lived and have ended in death, confusion and anguish.

In 1988, students protesting against the dictatorship of General Ne Win marched between the frayed tenement blocks of this township in downtown Yangon, whipping up euphoria, which then collapsed as thousands were shot and arrested. In 2007, locals clapped on monks as they walked into town to challenge again Myanmar's military regime, and then those supporters recoiled in despair as the same monks beat a bloodied, panicked retreat through its grimy side streets.

Few places in Myanmar have witnessed more closely the cruel fluctuations of life under five decades of fearful, brittle military rule.

But on Sunday night, as dust swirled through the air and results rolled in from by-elections that swept opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy into a tiny toehold in parliament for the first time, a building wave of optimism finally broke.

“A dog or a cat, an animal, could be the representative for our constituency, we’ll vote for them, because he or she comes from the NLD.”

As tallies came in, crowds surged in front of the local NLD office, erupting into cheers as announcements came over the loudspeaker. Suu Kyi had won her seat in Kawhmu, a rural district outside of Yangon; the local NLD candidate in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Phyu Phyu Thin, also had won, with close to 88 per cent of the vote. While official results from across the country will take days, it appears almost all of the 44 seats the NLD contested will fall their way. Even in the government's vast and gleaming new capital of Naypyidaw — a city of civil servants expected to plump for the government — the opposition was victorious.

Outside a nearby polling booth that was late to close, a crowd of hundreds — still suspicious that the authorities overseeing the poll were less than impartial — stood derisively clapping, chanting and singing the national anthem as two police and a plainclothes intelligence officer stood tense and stony-faced, their backs turned.

"Twenty-two years we've been waiting for this," yelled Thomas Selvaraj, an Indian Burmese who had joined the crowds, with obvious elation.

That number — 22 years — points to a fear sometimes muttered beneath the euphoria in the tea shops of this district: that too much success all at once could mean it all unwinds again. No one forgets 1990, when the NLD similarly won nationwide elections, which were then simply ignored by the generals. What if this expression of the popular will promotes a backlash, and the opposition is denied its place in parliament?

"Until now everybody is still worried if she'll get the right to sit or something will happen," Selvarej said of Suu Kyi. "Still worried."

Locals have nothing but scorn for national elections held in 2010, which were rigged by the authorities and boycotted by the NLD; that poll saw the formation of the country's current quasi-civilian government. The leader of that government, the ex-general President Thein Sein, has since introduced a raft of reforms, easing censorship and internal repression, allowing hundreds of political prisoners to walk free, and seeing Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 years of the past two decades under house arrest, rejoin the political process.

The by-election for a fraction of the 664-seat legislature was a first experiment with something approaching genuine openness. It has been — or perhaps was meant to be — a manageable, miniature democracy in a test tube.

This rapid change in one of the world's most isolated and repressive countries has been hailed by the world's leaders and media as a key milestone. With a global celebrity at the helm in the form of Suu Kyi, it's an easy, positive story to tell.

But what's actually happening in Myanmar? Are we about to see a new era of further reform? Or a backlash? No one really knows.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

Hundreds of NLD supporters cheer and mock election officials outside a polling booth in Mingalar Taung Nyunt.

Spending time in the country formerly known as Burma these days means existing in a world of multiple, overlapping realities.

There is the reality of the streets, where once-banned images of Suu Kyi proliferate on T-shirts, taxis and trishaws. People who only six months ago would look over their shoulders before speaking are freely celebrating. Here, there is a feeling of almost unconstrained optimism. At moments, it feels as if the people already have overthrown their hated rulers.

But there is also the reality of the regime that still rules over every arm of the state, which calls itself a "discipline-flourishing democracy".

Governing from the splendid isolation of Naypyidaw, Thein Sein's regime is backed by a parliament where the military-formed Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, forms a thumping majority, and the military occupies a quarter of all seats — enough to block constitutional reform. Censorship has eased, but this remains a country where the government determines much of what its people see and hear. In government newspapers on Monday, there were plenty of static pictures of senior officials voting — and none of the NLD's riotous victory celebrations.

Across much of one of Asia's poorest countries, even rudimentary development — and information — is yet to arrive. Through Myanmar's vast ethnic minority borderlands, where at least one-third of the population lives, distrust of the country's Burman majority still reigns, and Suu Kyi is not the same figure of near-universal adoration as she is to ethnic-majority Bamar. In the far north, near the border with China, an unaccountable military continues to abduct children, rape, torture and raze the homes of villagers in its war with ethnic rebels. Word of that does not make it past the censors.

Over six days of campaigning, voting and its aftermath, Mingalar Taung Nyunt — a densely packed, crumbling community of more than 100,000 Burmese, Indians and Chinese — was a microcosm of Myanmar's clashing realities.

“We have people power. There’s a difference between the power of people who have appointed themselves and those who have been chosen by the people.”

On paper at least, this was the territory of the USDP, which had won here in 2010 in a vote local people and opposition activists said was marred by rigging and intimidation. This year, their candidate was Le Le Thin, a longtime pro-military activist and the smiling, serene wife of a minister in the Yangon government. She was nominated for the job after the sitting USDP minister was elevated to a ministry.

Le Le Thin said she was going to win, yet there was reason to doubt her conviction. Travelling around the constituency with a slick retinue of party workers in crisp, white shirts and green longyi, Le Le Thin's campaign was mix of menace and money. To run into their cadres around town was to be offered, almost unfailingly, free hats, stickers, DVDs, keyrings and cups of tea.

"I think the USDP is better because we work for the public," she said. "We assess the needs of the community. If they need a road, we ask the government to build it, or we use our own money."

One evening, in a dimly lit side street in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Le Le Thin put that theory to the test. Standing on top of a strip of semi-finished road, she stood impassively with rows of USDP party workers as men and boys, some with wads of cash hanging around their necks, put on a terrifying martial arts display. A boy of about 10 flicked a sword over his shoulders while he trod barefoot on broken glass; another man, standing on top of upturned swords, sliced a blade back and forth over his tongue.

In a brief intermission, Le Le Thin spoke to the 100 or so people who had gathered to watch. The USDP built the road, she said, and if voted back in they will keep doing it. A bit more fire twirling and flagellation ensued, and then everyone went home.

It was the display of a party that sees itself as the rightful ruler and patron of the people, one that carries no repentance for its history of brutality.

<p>Photo by Aubrey Belford</p>

Photo by Aubrey Belford

NLD supporters at a rally for Phyu Phyu Thin in Mingalar Taung Nyunt.

I asked Le Le Thin if she thought the past military government had made mistakes by massacring and jailing its opponents. No, it hadn't, she said.

"If a country is in chaos, it's the government's job to control things," she explained, smiling. "Even in a family, you have some stupid children and clever children. There are ways to deal with the clever ones, and there are ways to beat the stupid ones."

Where were the clever children that would vote for the USDP? Le Le Thin directed us to Satsan, a dusty neighbourhood of trackside shacks that are home to about 500 government railways employees and their families, the kind of people expected to vote USDP.

When we turn up there, it's terrible timing for Le Le Thin. On one particularly forlorn patch of dirt and piled rocks, thousands had turned up to a rally for the NLD's candidate, Phyu Phyu Thin, hoisting the party's fighting peacock emblem in the air as they waited for the candidate to speak from the back of a truck, where a band played NLD campaign songs.

Just to make sure, I returned the next day when the excitement was over to speak to government workers, to see if any would vote for the USDP. A group of about 20 locals laughed out loud when I asked the question.

Sure, in 2010, locals did vote for the government over smaller, lesser-known opposition parties, but that's because they were pressured. "We had no experience voting, we didn't know who to choose," said Khin Maung Htum, a railway worker. But now they know who to choose, he said. They have Mother Suu.

“If a country is in chaos, it’s the government’s job to control things,” she explained, smiling. “Even in a family, you have some stupid children and clever children. There are ways to deal with the clever ones, and there are ways to beat the stupid ones. ”

On the campaign trail, Phyu Phyu Thin, an NLD activist and former political prisoner who founded an HIV/AIDS nongovernmental organisation, has been very much a creation of Suu Kyi. From being an activist of some note — and a recipient of praise from the international human rights community — she has become a celebrity in her constituency on the back of the image of The Lady.

"A dog or a cat, an animal, could be the representative for our constituency, we'll vote for them, because he or she comes from the NLD," joked Ragu Ne Myint, a 1988 activist and former political prisoner I met in one of Mingalar Taung Nyunt's tea shops.

Everywhere it has been clear that the extraordinary celebrity of Suu Kyi, and her legitimacy as the daughter of independence hero General Aung San, have been the driving force of the election. Formerly a moribund organisation of ageing "Uncles",the NLD has been reenergized since Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and the political opening. It is by engaging with Suu Kyi that Thein Sein has staked his reform process, and it is her star power that brought in foreign journalists by their hundreds, as well as international diplomatic attention, to Myanmar.

But it remains very unclear how the opposition will push for reform. So far every opening — relaxed censorship, limited elections, the release of political prisoners — has come from the top down, by order of Thein Sein's government in Naypyidaw. With less than a 10th of the parliamentary seats, the NLD has no power to compel anyone. It has only moral force, and Suu Kyi's formidable charisma; it needs the reality on the streets of those scattered by-elections to expand and engulf the regime that still rules. Not until general elections in 2015 does the NLD have the chance to seize power.

It's a point that has been addressed by Suu Kyi in her campaign, in pragmatic and often fuzzy language that belies her image as an obstinate, straightforward operator. She has repeatedly said that, rather than winning seats, the goal of the NLD is to raise the "political awareness" of ordinary Burmese.

At a press conference at the lakeside house where she has been periodically detained, Suu Kyi alternately charmed and admonished scores of foreign journalists who lined up for an exhausting, 90-odd minute question-and-answer session. For many people Suu Kyi can appear less of a political operator and more of a spiritual icon (some sample questions: "What makes you happy?", "Would you have some message for the Philippine people?", "I would like to know if you think the world and Burma should start a spiritual revolution?"). On serious political matters, Suu Kyi said she trusted Thein Sein's commitment to reform but was unsure how much the current rulers and the military backed him.

Asked how a military that still effectively exercises a veto on constitutional reform can be convinced to give up its power — and be held to account for ongoing serious rights abuses — Suu Kyi's answer falls back on the same position: The opposition simply will convince them.

"What the military will learn, I'm sure, is to realize that the future of this country is their future and that reform in this country means reform for them as well," she said. "We hope to win the military over to understand that we have to work together if we want peace and if we want progress."

Sitting on the floor of her campaign office above a busy street in Mingalar Taung Nyunt the day after the vote, Phyu Phyu Thin said it was likely the government was "shocked" at just how well the NLD did, even in Naypyidaw.

"This is extraordinary because it really exposes just how they had cheated in 2010," Phyu Phyu Thin said.

"I'm not worried about the fact that we only have a small number of seats in parliament. People know who was selected in 2010 and who have been truly elected by the people," she said. "We have people power. There's a difference between the power of people who have appointed themselves and those who have been chosen by the people."

For now, no one really knows if the opposition's strong showing is in line with the government's plan, or if it will promote panic among some in the elite.

As the extent of the NLD victory became apparent, I tried to get in touch with Le Le Thin again, to gauge her reaction — to see if two of Myanmar's realities had clashed.

My translator called up one of the candidate's staffers, who answered the phone, upset.

"Elder brother, we're not in a good way," she said. "The numbers are so different to what we expected. Can you call back later?"

The interview never went ahead.

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