At about 11 p.m. on March 4 in Burma, in a barren, barely inhabited metropolis of monumental architecture and half-built mansions encased in bamboo scaffolding, a young political candidate wiped the blood from his palms onto his jeans and barreled toward the exit of a hospital.
“This is the real problem of our country,” declared Naing Ngan Lin—aka Nigel—slum kid turned street hawker turned dissident turned politician running for a seat in the national Parliament.
Arms akimbo, a forelock of thick hair falling out of his Brylcreemed parting, he narrowed his gaze and surveyed the dereliction of the hospital in a city called Naypyitaw in searing central scrublands, all of which the ruling Generals of his country built from scratch. In 2005, they made it their shining, new capital. Ever since, they had touted it as a vision of the future. And yet at the hospital there was no running water, no soap, no doctor, and two new patients, bleeding and unconscious on gurneys, freshly delivered from his pickup truck. Nigel and his campaign team had discovered them forty minutes earlier by the side of an unlit six-lane highway, in a mangle of shouting bystanders and smashed motorcycle parts.
When crisis hit, Nigel preferred to hold the problem in his mind and turn it this way and that before offering a solution. His students called him “methodical,” more by a wide margin at least than their other teacher, Thar Thar, who was at that moment darting back toward him from three nurses in white headdresses down the hall, buzzing between the gurneys.
“All they wanted is the addresses,” said Thar, nom de guerre of Nigel’s friend, co-founder of a network of democracy activists and a political fugitive recently turned de facto national deputy campaign manager for their party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD. Elfin and just dark and protean enough that even in infancy his mother once confused him with the family dog’s newborn puppy, he had the zest of a firecracker whenever adrenaline surged. In Burma, in the trenches of the democracy struggle, in a party led by the Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which had resisted twenty-two years of relentless repression, adrenaline surged regularly.
In those moments, Thar’s speeded antics heightened his penchant for thinking a half-step ahead of everyone else. As the NLD team stormed around the lobby, searching for a doctor, Thar shot back to the nurses, who had roused to attention with all the urgency of late-night barflies. To them, he had gently been suggesting that instead of inquiring about the names and addresses of the accident victims and the NLD people who had rescued them in lieu of ambulances, or instead of staring blankly at the patients, they probably ought to think of performing a basic airway-breathing-cardio check and running their hands over the bodies to rule out serious injury.
If Thar had a greater impulse for emergency first response, it wasn’t for excess of conventional training. As a child, he’d learned from his father, a family physician whose practice in a riverside town of bamboo-and-palm thatched huts regularly involved sewing up poorer folk.
Later, after his father had been hauled away one rainy night and died in prison; after his mother had gathered her four sons together and asked one of them to work for Aung San Suu Kyi—The Lady, or Auntie, as he would come to call the country’s most famous dissident—and after he had stepped forward with nary a blink and joined Suu Kyi’s democratic political party, the NLD, while his three brothers stayed away from politics, he had matriculated in medical school. But he dropped out within half a year. One crazy political gesture in 2000—conscripting a busload of students to march toward Suu Kyi’s motorcade, which authorities blocked for days in a slum on the far bank of the Rangoon River—and forced him to sign a form promising to revoke politics or quit university. The decision had been a no-brainer, a protest against the ruling military junta. He had never—or rarely—looked back. Medical school would have to wait, he would say later with increasingly wry implausibility, “until the struggle is over.”
That struggle was for democracy: for choice, human rights, and basic freedoms—ideas all the more enthralling for having always been denied. But fundamentally, that struggle had always been rooted in the granular. From underground or under the chronic scrutiny of intelligence agents and informers, Thar and Nigel and Suu Kyi and dissidents across Burma’s pro-democracy movement had fought through the darkest years of military rule for a thousand daily practicalities: to earn a degree without bribing an examiner, to have electricity, to keep the rice paddy land that your family had tilled for generations, to hold an identity card if you happened not to be part of the Buddhist majority, or, if you were, to scrap the system that required one in the first place. They wanted—they believed—they had a right to assemble in groups of more than five; to use the word “nightmare” if they chose to in the lyrics of their songs; to paste a poster on a wall and not face prison for the privilege. Their concerns, the concerns of Burma’s “most passionate dissidents,” Suu Kyi had written recently, reflected “the sense of freedom as something concrete that has to be gained through practical work, not just as a concept to be captured through philosophical argument.”
Each of them had reached a tipping point, a personal point of slippage from ordinary citizenship into a life of dissent: a slow-burn indignation at the rampant poverty that boiled into an urge to march straight into the well-watched NLD headquarters; the mingled outrage and exhilaration that came of watching government servants shoot to kill or block emergency aid from reaching survivors of a massive cyclone—then discovering you could help them yourself. Dissent became a compulsion, as a self-taught government-server-hacker and underground head-banger in Thar and Nigel’s network once explained to me. He took the pseudonym Minus, but for his remarkably gangling body, friends preferred to call him Street Pole. He brandished a USB thumb drive: “For carrying this, I get seven years in prison.”
The NLD was born in 1988 as little more than an expedient alliance slapped together in the bloody chaos of a crackdown on a nationwide uprising. What happened then became a story of the country’s descent into pariah-land; of one authoritarian system supplanting another. What had happened also was a story of how a spontaneous anti-government eruption became a movement of dissidents, how the movement almost died, and how it didn’t so much survive as push one of the world’s most repressive governments to the brink of potential change.
“There are countries where elections have been rigged or hijacked or where the results have been disputed or denied,” Suu Kyi later wrote, “but Burma is surely the only one where the results have been officially acknowledged in the state gazette, followed by nothing.”
Spearheaded by a band of increasingly strategic university students, the 1988 uprising swelled over several months and eventually succeeded in forcing out a general named Ne Win, whose twenty-six-year rule had culminated in a caprice of astrologically motivated economic paranoia. Ne Win had seized power in 1962 from Burma’s fledgling, post-colonial parliamentary democracy, justifying the coup in the name of holding together fractious ethnic minorities in the wild hinterlands. He promptly asserted the mastery of the majority Buddhist Burmese, indefinitely suspended Parliament, and under a system that he called the “Burmese Way to Socialism” began steering the economy from the brightest promise of southeast Asia—with unparalleled social mobility, strategic centrality, and abundant natural resources—into a charity case.
The street-carnival atmosphere that followed his resignation lasted briefly. Carnage followed an internal reshuffle. Soldiers fired into crowds with impunity. Summary executions followed mass arrests. Plausible estimates place the number of deaths in the thousands. In the heat of it all, the daughter of the country’s martyred independence hero had coincidentally returned from her home in England to tend her ailing mother in Rangoon (now called Yangon), which was then still the capital. The daughter initially drew crowds because her fine-boned face bore striking resemblance to the father. But her speeches revealed an eloquence, poise, and intelligence that quickly established her as the voice of people’s aspirations. Around Suu Kyi collected respected military officers, urban intellectuals, Communists, and students, together with other thousands who still openly defied military rule.
Eventually under martial law, with Suu Kyi relegated to house arrest and the then-party chairman Tin Oo sentenced to hard labor, the NLD went on to win elections in 1990 in a landslide. Shocked at the extent of its unpopularity, the junta that had seized power in 1988 as a self-dubbed “State Law and Order Restoration Council” rejected the election results. It threw the most dynamic leaders of the NLD and hundreds of other dissidents in jail, banned all other opposition parties except a few enfeebled ethnic versions, and systematically began suppressing all dissent. Nearly bankrupt when they seized power, the generals fattened in the next two decades off sales from proceeds from gas, oil, teak, precious gems, deep-sea port projects, pipelines, and hydropower. They poured the receipts into their arsenal and later into giant vanity projects on the billion-dollar scale of the new capital Naypyitaw, which translates, in one version, to “abode of the kings.”
The wider population, meanwhile, spiraled into penury. University students fled the cities by the thousand to build a fighting force in the malarial border states, forging expedient alliances with the tougher armed ethnic minorities. For the next twenty years, Suu Kyi and prominent dissidents revolved in and out of detention. The abuses against the NLD never relented, until its will appeared to finally atrophy.
The education system was deliberately decimated to cull a tradition of anti-government organizing among students. Identity registration became a prerequisite for travel, work, or play. The usual societal dynamics of authoritarianism prevailed: fear, self-censorship, serial mistrust. You never knew who might be watching. You never knew when the knock on the door might come. Until a mass release on January 13, about 2,000 political prisoners had been dispersed across an archipelago of at least ninety prisons and labor camps, a number that had doubled with many facing multi-decade sentences since a short-lived uprising in September 2007. At least one-fifth of that group were members of the NLD.
So you would think that after thirteen years in Burmese opposition politics, with three of these spent in hiding, Thar had seen it all. Nigel, too, had long since made a vocation of breaking through the cowed and uncritical mindset of Burmese society, which military rulers had cultivated since 1962. Both had earned their stripes as activists teaching subversive political ideas to as many students as they could recruit. But each fresh encounter with that mindset and the countrywide indigence it helped perpetuate still managed to astound. Nothing, it seemed to them, had changed—even now, in the midst of a cascade of reforms that over the previous eight months had begun to suggest a newfound openmindedness from the government. The world beyond had largely lauded the changes as a rare chance for transition from authoritarian rule. For Burma’s opposition, they did not so much suggest the end of the beginning or even the beginning of the end.
“We are at the beginning of the beginning,” Thar put it, echoing consensus among dissidents that the sudden loosening of state controls, for being so precarious, came with greater urgency to push as they could never before. At the site of the motorcycle accident, miles from the ecstatically over-lit roundabouts of the new Burmese capital of Naypyitaw, on a stretch of road whose edges had already returned to scrubland, the pickup’s headlights had carved out of the night. About thirty people, yelling, talking over each other, walked in circles. As Nigel heard them out and consulted with his men, Thar marched straight through the dilly-dally of onlookers, past scattered metal and a blood stain, to a police officer craning over the unconscious motorcyclists with a flashlight, insisting into the shafts of light that the bodies cough up the details of their identity cards.
“I work for Naing Ngan Lin, and he is the NLD candidate for this constituency. We are taking these injured people to the nearest hospital. If you have a problem with that, phone him,” Thar said, thrusting his cell phone lit up with Nigel’s number in front of the policeman’s nose.
To be clear, Thar worked with, not for, his friend. Technically, he even worked above him, troubleshooting and coordinating the national campaign strategy for all forty-eight NLD candidates contesting for as many available seats in parliamentary by-elections on April 1. The elections, for less than 10 percent of parliament, were the first the NLD had contested since 1990. They came two years after general elections that the party had boycotted.
Nigel, the forelock of hair resisting crack-of-dawn applications of Brylcreem, was the first of the candidates (after Suu Kyi herself) that party elders had picked to represent them in the April by-elections. At thirty-four, he was the second youngest. He was respected, passionate, and, as friends, colleagues, and family members unanimously declared him, “honest.”
He was also handsome, with an old soul’s solemnity in his chiseled features and a commanding presence that he exuded in the casual confidence of his stride. A slight paunch complemented the air of maturity that had impressed the NLD elders; it brimmed over his jeans and, sometimes, his longyi, the Burmese sarong he sported often—certainly more frequently than Thar, whose puckish restlessness and shoulder-length mane, cargo pants, and T-shirts advertising various heavy metal bands cast him squarely, from the vantage point of Burma’s conservative fashions, in the mantle of rich delinquency. They were, the pair of them, earth and air, the one strapping, systematic, and forthright; the other impulsive, volatile, and hummingbird-lithe. One had worked above-ground, donning his native poverty as a badge of authenticity with his students, and now his constituents; the other had maneuvered from behind the mask of clandestine life, sleeping in Internet cafes, shifting with mercurial ease between identities. Not that sleeping in Internet cafes had necessarily been less luxurious than Nigel’s situation. But it wasn’t legal.
Still, however well Thar had cultivated friendships with half-a-dozen Internet café managers in his years as a fugitive, he always made a point of never collapsing over the keyboard. Hounded out of Rangoon by an intelligence agent in May 2009, he had hidden for a couple of weeks in an upcountry hamlet, fidgeted in the seamless landscape of paddies and mud, and returned to the city in disguise in the cargo hold of friend’s truck. Forevermore, his rural home had been off limits. If he went back, local authorities would have known it through their network of informants; even if he escaped arrest, his friends, relatives, and widowed mother could expect regular bouts of interrogation and harassment. On no account would he put a friend at risk for his own sake. Better to vanish into the human sprawl of old Rangoon, one more carefree punk among hundreds in the grid of boulevards down by the river, from the booksellers and deserted jetties off Strand Road, round ancient Sule Pagoda, and on towards the offal stalls and one-time opium dens in the back-alleys of Chinatown. Sometimes, when the Internet cafés shut early, at 2 or 3 a.m., he headed out to net recruits at all-night teashops, the kind that appeared at twilight, as if by magic, spilling out in an anarchy of tiny plastic chairs and tables across sidewalks and into the streets under halogens hanging off coconuts and betels and strung from crazily vibrating generators, because in a city of 5 million, in a country with rivers churning with hydropower potential, there was still no electricity.
Nigel’s bed, from birth until he married, with the minor hiatus of losing the place entirely to Tropical Cyclone Nargis in May of 2008, had been a patch of unadorned floorboards in a two-room hut down an unpaved alleyway in North Okklapa, a slum district populated by trishaw drivers and street-market hawkers. He shared his home with eight siblings and his parents, who still exhibited all the trappings of the mad, inopportune love on which their brood had been founded and that they later channeled into politics.
In another life, another place, Nigel would have been the kind of driven high-school success story who might have gone on to an MBA and a job in finance. Popular with the ladies and a karate black belt primed for national competition, his two early passions had frittered away when one parent, then the other, was arrested and his six younger siblings were suddenly without income or food.
Within months, the junta hiked the price of fuel. Overnight, people could no longer afford to take the bus to work, could no longer afford to donate to the Buddhist monks who filed by each morning, bare-pated and in togas colored raw saffron, gathering donations in their alms bowls for their noon-time meal. When the monks protested—tens of thousands of them in the streets, chanting about compassion with bowls overturned in symbolic denial of Buddhist merit to the junta—Nigel discovered a natural talent as orator (or rabble-rouser, depending on your perspective), jumping impromptu onto pedestals in pagodas or on street corners to galvanize civilians. After the crackdown on what had come to be called the Golden-Yellow Revolution, or “Saffron” to foreigners, as the rest of the country hunkered into spooked silence and government agents began assiduously to match names to faces on photographs and hunt down suspected ringleaders, Nigel marched straight to the hornet’s nest that was then the NLD party headquarters. With agents from Military Intelligence and police watching from a tea shop just across the street, Nigel signed up for membership.
Thar, three years Nigel’s junior, was already a veteran. He didn’t tell Suu Kyi that he was the son of two activists who had become close friends to her after 1988, never mentioned that his father had danced with Suu Kyi as a schoolboy, selected the daughter of General Aung San when he picked her shoe by chance from a pile in a formal ball for their respective boys’ and girls’ schools back in India. Thar had earned his place in the NLD fair and square, though unconventionally, on his own merits. Suu Kyi happened upon an NLD book club—“death sentence for the writer,” Thar had jested later—where the high school graduate exhibited a surprising audacity and precocious flair for debate. Handpicked by Suu Kyi for the NLD’s Central Information Committee, he bypassed the usual Party hierarchy, and had never since lived down the jealousy.
Thar would not tell strangers that he was a politician. Dissembling, born of necessity, became his art. To potential recruits, Thar would offer only that he was a translator, an NGO worker, a computer game aficionado. At any rate, you saw a gregarious Tiger Beer drinker with a generous pocket and a strange ability to engage you in political conversation. But the surface mendacities melted away once he had you. Once his intense, almond eyes fixed on you, his ardent tongue let loose and you were daring to think aloud about the country’s decay. If he had his way, and he often did, you were hooked. You were on your way to becoming Minus, a “second-line” activist who would heretofore be fully enrolled in their learn-a-little, teach-a-lot school of dissent.
Few could guess that Suu Kyi called him “Baby”; fewer still that throughout her final years of detention, as the junta held her incommunicado, he’d kept her informed of all his maneuverings; all his attempts to build and build again a secret battalion of activists to hand back to her; that even as a fugitive, he would steal by night with messages between her lone interlocutor, her lawyer U Nyan Win, and other spy-swarmed politicians. Nor would you know it that Grandpa, U Win Tin, the party’s eighty-three-year-old grand strategist, had come to rely on Thar for illicit missions in the months after the release of the firebrand from nineteen years in prison. That they became surrogates for the sisters, fathers, children, whom they could never have or who had vanished or grown into strangers in their long absences—all that was immaterial. Thar had wittingly made himself a vital link between the old and the new, connecting the know-how from five decades of opposition to military rule with the inchoate savvy of his generation, denied the rudiments of decent education and groping, in the absence of their elders, for a rebellious politics all of their own.
Nigel referred to Thar’s methods as “manipulation.” He sometimes accused Thar of cultivating closeness to the NLD elders as a bid for power. Nigel preferred to hold up his NLD affiliation as a calling card. His brazenness, at a time when talking aloud of politics made most Burmese shut like clams, often shook the fear right out of them. Under twenty-four-hour interrogation in June 2009, or to disarm the agents who up until December 2011 still found it necessary to trail him by the half-dozen on his daily commute, he had weaponized self-worth; intelligence agents, he had intuited, were often honest types, who hated their job and secretly respected his kind, particularly when they held strong.
That the pair had managed to work together for so long owed less to their divergent tactics than a common vision for the country. It was all they had going during the years when the ends seemed a pipedream. As sure as the rubies in the mines of Mogok, you didn’t do this work for money or power. Opportunists be wary. If you wanted the power, or the rubies for that matter, Thar used to joke, why not join the army?
As the pickup truck careened down the highway from the site of the accident to the hospital, Thar conscripted Nigel to shout through the casualties’ comas that they were O.K.; he assured them that they were in good hands now, they’d make it through. One was a solid young woman, to all appearances a scion of Burma’s narrow middle class. The other was likely a laborer drawn from masses whose poverty hovered near subsistence levels. He had alcohol on his breath, bones for hips, and torso and limbs, beneath the tattered shirt and blackened sarong, as brittle as egg shell. In the hospital, a scrum formed around the cell phones as the NLD team phoned other NLD people in three neighboring constituencies, and worked the lines to get a doctor, any doctor. Pronto.
A fourth nurse, older, with a sour matron’s expression that seemed to suggest that disturbances of this kind at nighttime at a hospital were not approved by local authorities, stood behind a reception desk and methodically tapped her ledger with a wooden ruler. “Name? Address?” she called out, as NLD team members blitzed past.
It was pushing toward midnight. Just under a month remained until the April 1 elections. Thar had a red-eye bus to catch for a crack-of-dawn meeting with the campaign manager in party headquarters 250 miles due south in Rangoon. Nigel—himself running for office in Naypyitaw—had a final check on the stage that his team was building against the clock in the middle of a parched field just outside the capital for a much-anticipated campaign stop tomorrow by Suu Kyi. Perhaps somewhere between they could all think of dinner. The day had begun at sunrise for Nigel; at 7 p.m. the previous night for Thar.
But no one was leaving until a doctor showed up.
Two days before the elections, a reporter asked Suu Kyi to rate Burma’s progress toward democracy—on a scale of one to ten.
“We are trying to get to one,” snapped the leader of Burma’s democracy movement. She spoke at a press conference on the grounds of her lakeside villa in Rangoon, a deceptively elegant exemplar of colonial-era Art Deco in peeling gray paint where the unchallenged leader of Burma’s democracy movement had spent fifteen of the previous twenty-three years under house arrest.
There was a time when the lawn, now manicured and rimmed in an explosion of tropical flowers, was a wilderness of unkempt, hip-high grasses. There was a time when, cut off from postal deliveries, she had so little cash for food that she began to sell off the furniture: museum pieces in their own right if only for their association with her father, Aung San, assassinated in 1947 six months before the independence from Britain that he had so deftly negotiated. But the challenge today was less tragically purgative. For nearly two hours, until she almost collapsed with the heat exhaustion that had nagged her as she zigzagged the country on her campaign tour, Suu Kyi stood under a blistering midsummer sun firing back witticisms and shrewdly diplomatic rejoinders to an unprecedented gathering at 54 University Avenue of reporters, diplomats, and international election observers.
The press conference was a marker of a certain kind of triumph. Twenty-two years since Suu Kyi’s party won its landslide victory, the NLD had again scored a historic coup. Through sheer participation, it had succeeded in turning a legal technicality in a constitution whose legitimacy it did not recognize into the most significant and well-watched act of political theater in Southeast Asia’s recent history. The government had eased up on visas to foreign journalists for the occasion, and hundreds had poured in for a front-row seat or an undiminished view of the sylphlike icon. Would the parliamentary elections of April 1, 2012, prove free and fair? Would an enigmatic military-civilian hybrid government that had in the final weeks of 2011 and early 2012 wowed the world with its fast-paced reforms readily concede even a few seats to the popular might of a party it had brutally repressed since 1990? Only eighteen months shy of her latest stint of house arrest, would it really deliver a perch in government to The Lady? The prospect quavered as an ending to Burma’s shame if not exactly worthy of Hollywood’s most bittersweet, then at least of a velvet transition last seen under the guidance of Suu Kyi’s spiritual forebear, Vaclav Havel.
But the NLD’s greater achievement, even before voting day, was a double whammy: exciting the passions of a people long since inured to politics. It also began transforming itself from the rigidly hierarchical fossil it had become in the previous two decades into the byword for democratic government that it had always promised to be.
By late March 2012, to be cool in Burma was to join the party with a rap-song theme set to a colonial-era revolutionary poem, “Wake Up, Myanmar!” To be cool was to support the party whose offices were tucked into private bamboo-and-thatch homes, down mud lanes lined with banana trees, in villages devoid of running water and electricity. To be cool now was to tie across your forehead, ninja-style, a strip of cloth with the sign of the NLD—a fighting peacock flaming gold against a scarlet backdrop—that only months before had been a ticket to prison.
By late March 2012, too, a new generation of dissidents had bubbled to the surface: a toxic alliance of activists who had honed their skills in exile, in prison, or underground. Ragged, informal networks of activists could operate now in the light of day, and the infusion of visibility and relative legality had intensified and accelerated their ambitions.
In the litany of national power reshufflings, this one offered slim pickings. “This is our test, for the 2015 elections,” said Thar’s boss, U Nyan Win, meaty and freckled with sleepy eyes that belied his capacity for a good legal tussle. He had been Suu Kyi’s personal lawyer and the longtime party spokesman before taking on campaign management. “We need experience under this commission law. There are many limitations and we are trying to—practically to know about this. Practically, we want to know.”
Limitations and irregularities ahead of April 1 and the elections had become U Nyan Win’s bread and butter. There were problems with the voter lists, candidate disqualifications, venues for rallies denied, blocked outright, or relegated to the middle of remote fields. There were defacements of posters and localized smear campaigns, including one accusing Suu Kyi of whoring with a foreigner—her late British husband. There were predictable bribes of electricity or roads to entire villages, and sporadic threats of eviction or arrest for those who refused to vote for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP. U Nyan Win, who had almost singlehandedly fought to salvage the party’s legal standing after its forced dissolution on May 6, 2010, had just the right credentials for the current battle—an improvised, legal push-and-pull between the government and the opposition, in which the government would concede just enough to the NLD to be seen abroad as conducting a fair election. The NLD, preternaturally sensitive to foul play and just as aware that the lifting of Burma’s pariah status depended on how it fared, would fight back at every turn.
Only 48 Parliamentary seats out of 659 were up for grabs, as representatives moved to other appointments in the government, vacating seats that they had held since general elections in 2010. That vote had been the first since 1990. With Suu Kyi still under house arrest, with no desire to be complicit in the nullification of the 1990 results, and with no indication that the new elections or the new constitution it enshrined was anything more than a sham intended to mask military rule with a civilian face, the party had officially boycotted.
The decision had been vindicated by credible allegations of massive and widespread cheating. Thar and Nigel had been among the dozens of activists who had trained for months, and then trained others, in election monitoring. They infiltrated polling stations and burst their data in real-time to sharp-toothed exile media.
The new constitution had been put into law in 2010, pushed through in a fraudulent referendum in May 2008, days after Cyclone Nargis killed 138,000 people and eight months after the brutal snuffing out of Saffron. Among its clauses, it gave the military full prerogative to re-take the reigns of power in the event of any vaguely defined state of emergency. It also gave the military an inviolable majority with a 25 percent bloc of seats for men in uniform. The rest were largely handed off to members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a repackaged version of a mass social apparatus previously called the Union Solidarity and Development Association that the junta had depended on to bribe, bully, and crush all dissent while entrenching tentacles of loyalty deep into society. The cabinet was handpicked from among forcibly retired generals or their notorious business cronies. At its helm sat President Thein Sein, a freshly retired brigadier general previously known to Burmese simply as “Number 4.” Nos. 1 through 11 comprised the latest configuration of the junta that had spent two long decades compounding the effects of Ne Win’s twenty-six-year tyranny.
But not long after the cobbling together of the first parliament in decades, reforms began. By the parliament’s second sitting in August 2011, an artifice of awkward legislative procedure had yielded to genuine draft legislation on national injustices and problems. Reforms treated, inter alia, the right to form labor unions, the nefarious consequences of having six national exchange rates, and electoral laws that had deliberately excluded anyone with a criminal conviction, which meant Suu Kyi and other members of the NLD. The nine parliamentarians from the National Democratic Force, a hardy voice for democracy that had splintered from the NLD in 2010, introduced draft after draft, including a vitally relevant land reform bill, and found that they could earn a hearing. They began to develop a sophisticated plan for the complex woes of the country’s economy.
And then came the hat trick. On the heels of swelling popular opposition that had simmered for years on the fringes of an armed insurgency, the Thein Sein government suspended a proposal for a $3.6 billion, Chinese-backed hydropower project that would have destroyed the source of the mighty Irrawaddy River in Kachin state, near the Chinese border. Within weeks, it followed up with a landmark ceasefire hastily signed with the Karen National Union, pausing the oldest and most intractable of Burma’s half-dozen ethnic minority insurgencies. A day later, on January 13, the government finally sprung hundreds of prominent dissidents from more than ninety prisons and labor camps. Never before had Suu Kyi roamed free alongside the ringleaders of uprisings in 1996, 1998, 2007, and especially of 1988.
The clincher for the NLD had been a private meeting between the president and Suu Kyi, whose repeated calls for dialogue and reconciliation across the years had largely been met with silence. Both declared the encounter substantive, and Suu Kyi told her deputies that she had faith in the president’s sincerity. Partly to endorse the liberalizing process and partly to take advantage of the new political space, she would lead the party back into the parliamentary process. Even with less than a tenth of seats, even if victory for the NLD could see Suu Kyi enter a parliamentary “gilded cage” in which her popular power would be drowned out in a quicksand of severe constitutional constraints, the terms of the democracy struggle in Burma had irredeemably changed. A twenty-three-year face-off between a military government and the party would return to the realm of law. Now they would fight from inside the system.
Thus did a meager 7 percent stake allow Burma, at last, a collective exhalation. A two decade-old face-off between a military government and the party would return to the realm of law. Now they would fight from inside the system.
Thar had arrived in Naypitaw at 3:30 a.m. that morning from Rangoon. He came with nothing more than the clothes on his back, a short-sleeved linen shirt and black slacks, and a thin, black briefcase that he touched reflexively throughout the seven-hour journey.
Inside the briefcase was a speech that Suu Kyi was to deliver within days. Coming from the leader whose ability to articulate the people’s hopes had for over two decades presented the greatest threat to military rule in Burma—a woman whose every gesture since her release from house arrest on November 13, 2010, had conjured awed attention from the masses and much of the world beyond—the pages in his briefcase might as well have been spun gold. It fell to Thar to play delivery boy, pleading Suu Kyi’s case should the members of the commission quibble, then return to Rangoon with the censored version. Only since last January had editors of Burma’s 100-odd private journals been able to pass Suu Kyi’s image through the Press Scrutiny Board. Someone would have to pore over every word of the speech, someone higher even than the commission’s chairman, a retired lieutenant general who compulsively rolled four fat gold rings with green and red rocks the size of knuckles.
At dawn, Nigel threw a pan of well water over his face and carefully parted and tended his hair. He kissed his squirming two-year-old son, squeezed his wife’s thin shoulders, and sped off from his local campaign headquarters. A two-story concrete shell with an outhouse and a well, which a local purveyor of bottled fizzy drinks and other dust-covered trinkets had donated to Nigel for the campaign, the building hunkered among a neighborhood grid of huts and shacks patched together from bamboo, corrugated iron, and concrete. Its signpost, giant and red, faced out over the road to the construction site of a mansion belonging to no less than arguably the most powerful man in the country—the commander-in-chief of the Burmese army.
Today, March 4, it wasn’t yet time for campaigning door-to-door, delivering speeches or taking tea, cross-legged, in the huts of his constituents. It wasn’t yet the moment for re-inventing the wheel, improvising and landing on a campaign strategy rooted less in deep erudition and rather more, rather enormously in fact, on the freewheeling, participatory tactics that he and Thar had come of age honing and perfecting in their various attempts at building activist networks. Today he had only to prepare for The Lady’s visit.
He didn’t need her endorsement, he insisted. He almost didn’t want it. “This time, in my opinion, is an opportunity for the youth leaders,” he said. In his head, he toyed with tweaking his stump speech to ask farmers if, given the choice, they would honestly buy an old cow. When it was suggested to him that this might sound disrespectful, he burst into his signature giggle, curiously juxtaposed with the gravitas in his gaze. “I respect the elders but I don’t do what they say when they make mistakes. I am not a slave to tradition,” he said. “I always tell them: you have to respect the elder, but you should do what you want, you should have your belief. I have my belief.”
Nigel dashed off to an Internet café; to a print shop pumping out a giant campaign poster depicting the young candidate smiling over the shoulder of Grandpa, the party’s wizened and nationally celebrated strategist; onto the middle of the field, where his team was hammering and sawing together their stage to music blaring from a megaphone that someone had positioned in the branches of a gnarled tamarind tree.
He took a call from a monk who offered information that a sympathizer of Nigel’s opponent from the USDP was planning an arson attack as a diversion from Suu Kyi’s impending visit. The conspirator had allegedly hatched the idea in the monastery, out of a myopic miscalculation of the monk’s sympathies or some latter-day confidence in his fear-mongered silence. Nigel took the information and gleefully phoned it in to local Burmese law enforcement, with a giggle and a twinkle-eyed appreciation for the palpable irony of a dissident suddenly employing the services of the very intelligence apparatus whose agents had only weeks before monitored him from teashops and on board the buses of his daily commute.
Nigel stopped at his local political office to pick up some campaign pamphlets. Finally, he headed down a banana-tree-lined path in one of his constituency’s villages. Children kicked up dust as they ran past goats and chickens. Leaves hung limp in the mid-afternoon swelter. The only sign of something afoot were the motorcycles stuck with NLD flags parked outside a bamboo house held up by slender stilts. As Thar chucked a clementine at a scrawny boy, then stretched out in the pickup to snooze off the effects of the previous night’s red-eye, Nigel and eight members of his team powwowed for an hour in the house in the cool shade of a mud-floored room. An old man, withered as a walnut, dozed in a bamboo chair. An old woman chuckled softly as she stirred a bubbling pot of curry over burning coals. The team had less than twenty-four hours to compile lists of eligible voters from twenty-seven villages and present them to the Election Commission. The mistakes, as they pored through a thick mound of government-sanctioned versions, were legion: here were people who didn’t actually exist, there were people who weren’t registered; some had moved to another constituency, others had died a few years back; and then there were the migrant laborers whose home was somewhere else entirely.
The motorcycles sped off, scattering chickens out of the way.
The brick-and-mortar face-off of Nigel’s campaign headquarters could have been a symbol for the country’s current juncture: The NLD, party of the people, poor as its fly-infested outhouses, yet rising once more to challenge the entrenched might of senior military officers whose monopoly on all aspects of power had, for five decades, helped ensure Burma’s ranking among the poorest, most corrupt, and repressive countries in the world.
Time and the harshness of circumstance had denuded the NLD to its essence, to an idea of future democracy predicated on defiant, or quixotic, hope. “We were not in the business of merely replacing one government with another, which could be considered the job of an opposition party,” Suu Kyi wrote of the NLD in a lecture broadcast on the BBC on July 5, 2011. “Nor were we simply agitating for particular changes in the system as activists might be expected to do. We were working and living for a cause that was the sum of our aspirations for our people, which were not, after all, so very different from the aspirations of peoples elsewhere.”
On March 5, a haze of coal dust hung over the evening rally. The red orb of the sun dissolved through the soot into a crenellated landscape of rising concrete. Laborers covered in white dust trucked down the vast highway, past a fenced-in slum of flimsy straw huts in a grid of alleyways all hung with laundry. Beside a teashop where business this evening was booming, young men in white T-shirts bearing the green lion logo of the USDP—the military’s party—played football, indifferent or feigning indifference to the onslaught of trucks and hundreds of motorcycles pouring toward them, each bearing the red of the National League for Democracy: red flags, red logo, red sticker.
Foreheads were covered in bandanas, faces stuck with stickers, open-backed trucks and SUVs bedecked in giant red, laminated signs. Over the arid, Ozymandian immensity of Naypyitaw, the flag of the National League for Democracy, party of subversive dissidence, on this day flew proud. With Suu Kyi in town, the NLD was suddenly the party to beat.
The crowds here, at the evening rally, were fewer than the hundreds who had danced and jiggled to the beat of NLD songs in the field where Suu Kyi had come to endorse Nigel that afternoon. Viewers in Nigel’s constituency had waited for hours for Suu Kyi to appear in her convoy. They squatted under parasols or squinted back at the sun from ruts of hay-strewn cracked earth, as close to the stage as they could manage. NLD agents dispensed little paper NLD flags. Impromptu restaurants and fruit stalls sprang up. At one table, a sun-leathered farmer leaned over a mug of fresh-ground sugar-cane juice and waxed lyrical about the marriage of Suy Kyi’s father and mother. Trucks piled thick with supporters dancing, singing, and clapping had pulled up from Rangoon, from Twantay, from hundreds of miles across the country, zigzagging in tow to Suu Kyi’s convoy as she ricocheted from one constituency to the next. They came, and came again, because:
“I remember 1990.”
“The speech never gets old, never.”
“We want democracy.”
Suu Kyi, a fusillade of white roses in her hair, began hoarse, her voice overworked from her punishing countrywide schedule of public engagements. But seconds in, after she had cracked a first broad smile, her voice honeyed and she mellowed into a relaxed camaraderie with her massive audience, as if each among them were an old friend. Beside her stood Nigel, wearing his traditional pinni jacket and longyi, solemnly nodding to salient points in her speech, the picture of a young man playing by the rules in an old man’s game. She slapped his shoulder; the crowds cheered.
No one—not even the elders—expected victory from all of the relative newbies running for NLD in all four constituencies in the capital of Naypyitaw to win. There was Nigel, green as an unripe mango; Sandar Min, a strong-willed forty-four-year-old entrepreneur with more university degrees than Thar and Nigel combined, and a track record of student activism that had landed her in prison twice after 1988. Min Thu too had been an ’88 student and a political prisoner, released on January 13, and the only candidate in all the country to face a slingshot attack, which had briefly felled a young member of his security. Least favorable, at least in Thar and Nigel’s informal polling, was Zayar Thaw, the party’s youngest candidate at thirty-one and a nationally celebrated rapper and musician, whose notoriety had turned political when he co-founded a shadowy dissident youth group called Generation Wave. For that, he too had eventually landed in jail.
Even in their scarcity, the forty-eight constituencies represented the country’s spectacular geological variety, the breadth of its multifaceted emergencies, and the depth of recent changes. They crisscrossed Burma’s great central plain and climbed to the foothills of the Himalayas near China, where fighting between the Burmese army and armed insurgents from the Kachin hill tribe had, according to UN reports, displaced 55,000 people since June 2011. They plunged into a southern dagger of land that bordered Thailand to the east and, to the west, the Andaman Sea, highlighting an environmentally controversial Italian-Thai venture to build a billions-dollar deep-sea port near an industrial “Special Economic Zone.”
NLD offices, shuttered for years, had in recent weeks, sprung up anew in private homes in villages and towns across the country. Fear, depending on the place, had evaporated. Even the drunks of Rangoon knew they could chase the police away if they threatened members of the party that was again taking the country by storm.
Thar and the campaign team found themselves dashing between rival groups, attempting to defuse tensions as old-timers competed for prominence with new members, and both groups with an insurgent third—activists who had for months or years operated underground. In Twantay, a potters’ town in the Irrawaddy Delta, the upstarts had set up shop just opposite the dilapidated storefront of the veterans, sticking it bluntly to what they perceived as twenty years of inaction. Incompetents! Opportunists! Lily-livered double agents! Against each group stood accusations and acrimony: The first had let the party die, the second were fair-weather activists, and as for the third—if they were so adept at secrecy, who was to say they weren’t playing for the other team?
In the critically decisive Kawmhu, where Suu Kyi herself was running, Thar pretended to defer to the authority of a former NLD security man who seemed particularly taken with his past service, then schemed with a lawyer who, he deciphered, had better contacts, and greater willingness to think beyond the past to educate the population ahead of voting day.
Suu Kyi, tasked with intervening in instances of particular recalcitrance, proved herself rather more Solomonic. To each their right to join the party, she had said. For now, they needed red meat followers. They could deal with structural issues later, if, and when, they made it into government.
Nigel played the rivalries off each other. In Naypyitaw, to get anywhere at all, you needed wheels, which meant you needed fuel beyond the weekly rations, which meant you needed money—and plenty of it. Two camps from separate wards happened to compete over which would earn the right to open the official NLD office. Each group conveniently included several wealthy members who plied the candidate with services in an ever-intensifying race to outdo their opponents. Nigel, whose material possessions barely filled a trunk, had come to rely on the kindness of Naypyitaw’s rival NLD activists, for everything.
“April 1 was the busiest day of my life,” said U Nyan Win.
Sunrise cracked across Rangoon as people were already streaming toward polling stations. In the war room, on the second floor of the NLD headquarters, the campaign team had set up seven phones. They rang without interruption from minutes before polls opened at 5 a.m. until dusk. Thar, whose cell phone had long before become the NLD’s unofficial after-hours hotline, had taken calls throughout the night. He spent the morning beside his three-girl research team and several senior Uncles, passing news from across country to Nyan Win, whose furious hand penned one official letter after another to the election commission. At each increment, Thar discreetly phoned the information to his savvy, sometime whiskey-drinking mate, “U Min Min,” for instant dissemination on his Facebook page; it quickly became the day’s must-read for 4,000 and climbing “friends” from across Burma’s transnational sliver of wired political insiders. The rest played catch-up: exile media outlets, the icons of ’88, Generation Wave, and all the groups that had proved their activist credentials in recent years tensed beside phones, computers, and makeshift citizen call-in centers. After the fraudulent referendum of 2008 and then the fraudulent election of 2010, the entire opposition braced for another massive deception.
The crisis hit by mid-morning. A litany of complaints poured in claiming that the names of the NLD candidates were waxed over on hundreds of ballots. Nyan Win fired off a legal rebuttal for urgent delivery to the commission in Naypyitaw, but there was no fax machine in the office, no functional fax in the hotel of the Chinese tourist who Thar had conscripted to help a few days earlier, no fax anywhere.
Thar considered for a moment. Then he phoned Nigel.
“What? I can’t hear you! What’s that? I’m busy!” Nigel was somewhere between polling stations, furiously circling in a round-robin to oversee his 200-odd NLD volunteer polling representatives. Just yesterday, they had crammed into his campaign headquarters, spilling out the door and down the steps, for a final pep talk and a question-answer session with a Rangoon legal advisor.
“You’re busy only for your constituency!” Thar shouted back, “I’m busy for the entire country!” With a final impassioned plea, Thar persuaded Nigel to dash to an Internet café, print out Nyan Win’s letter, then screech down the highway for hand delivery to the commission.
But as soon as polls closed at 4 p.m., and the counting began promptly, one basket at a time, international election observers who had been invited in too late to witness the full campaign were quick to offer their verdict on the day: “clean,” “pretty smooth,” “transparent.” Minor fudges on ballots and voter lists were understandable, they said, in a country with nineteenth-century infrastructure and the machinery to match. But these did nothing to mar an election that on polling day at least had been shockingly, remarkably, free and fair.
As 4 p.m. hit, Nigel headed for his local election commission and as his polling agents rang in the results, he marked them down on a scrap of paper that he later folded up and held in the breast-pocket of a new shirt, starched white and collarless, that he had purchased for the occasion late the night before from the local convenience store.
For all the tension he had exuded the day before, on March 31, Nigel might as well have been have been playing marbles. Rumors landed that his military-backed opponent had bribed an entire village with electronic transformers, and that day handed a hefty $8,000 wad to each of twenty-five young men—for no purpose more fathomable to Nigel and his team than to hire them as thugs. He knew already that he would win. His wife and parents too shrugged away the notion that they should manifest any emotion beyond relaxed confidence.
Tomorrow, his father would proudly wipe away a tear as he thanked the universe aloud for the gift of watching his son take on the political promise that his own generation had failed to fulfill. His mother would smile knowingly at her third child, whose starry destiny she had trusted to unfold ever since he had first appeared to her in a dream when he was still in the womb: fully grown and dressed in white, heroism and goodness personified.
They had headed to the late-night “hyper-mart” in search of stamps or Post-its or something expensive and papery that Nigel couldn’t quite name but knew he needed for his official accounting. No one had recognized the candidate as he and his family tripped past row upon row of shining cans and fat bottles and plastic-wrapped riches. The exoticism of the place dizzied them. Never before had they encountered such abundance.
“This is a shop for thieves,” said his father, shaking a fat dragon fruit from a fridge display with a price tag large enough to cover a hefty meal for a family in North Okkla. Much discussion centered around the frozen meat before they settled on a small packet of papaya salad for dinner that night. Only later, as he passed a clearance shelf stocked with longyis and white shirts, did it occur to Nigel that he could use a fresh set. His stock of the traditional Burmese wraps, all three of them, were worn through and dirty. For a freshly elected Parliamentarian, they simply would not do. The next day, he stood beside the legal advisor come from Rangoon, waiting to match the results from his polling representatives with those of the official election commission. Village one: 386 to 192. Village two: 318 to 217. Village four: 580 to 281. And so his victory, in all but two polling sites, began.
Back in Rangoon, few tempted fate with marble-playing tranquility. No one, not even the veterans of 1990, had ever imagined anything like it.
By 6 p.m., the gentle civility of the first few visitors to the party headquarters had swelled to a street party themed in NLD red. The roar that greeted the announcement of Suu Kyi’s victory must have shaken the bells atop the massive gold dome of nearby Shwegadon Pagoda. By 9 p.m., the dancing and hooting in the sea of red had spilled down the neighboring blocks with such abandon that Tin Oo, the old commander-in-chief of the army who had co-founded the NLD in 1988, muscled his way out of headquarters and shouted that Suu Kyi was calling for discipline and self-restraint.
By 11 p.m., with hundreds of supporters still pouring toward the uptown party outside the NLD office, Nyan Win decided it was time to disappear. If the NLD team was seen to have incited as uninhibited a rally, the army had every right to accuse them, to borrow the usual parlance, of disturbing the general peace and security of the state. To the surprise even of its own members, the party had won everywhere except the ethnic Shan stronghold of Lashio, near Thailand. For all their exhilaration at the victory—even in the four constituencies of Naypyitaw! even in constituencies that were predicted to vote military!—they could not risk tripping any wire that might provoke 1990 redux.
The team slipped out—through the crowds, one by one, ducking into the car of Han Thar Myint, the more wiry and guarded of Suu Kyi’s two NLD deputies. He dropped them off each in turn and on their rattan mats or mattresses by midnight they had crawled, exhausted, humbled, and vindicated.
To outsiders, everything had changed. The United States, along with much of the Western world that had long held Burma in financial and diplomatic exile, began easing sanctions in earnest. With sufficient foreign aid and investment, the country, to many, seemed on course to join the economic might of the wider region.
But hardened dissidents saw a long and difficult road to the next general elections: in 2015. The people’s response had been less a rally than a “silent demonstration,” according to Ko Ko Gyi—explosive words from a key dissident strategist who knew something about demonstrations, lost his ripest years to a prison cell for fomenting the two biggest demonstrations the country had seen. Even Grandpa admitted shock. “Really,” he said, “we didn’t expect that much.” Khin Maung Swe’s pro-democratic NDF party had fielded eleven candidates. In the surge of attention and support toward the NLD, the NDF had a crisis of money, a crisis of media coverage, a crisis of defections. It lost everywhere. Yet he had no regrets. Democracy, however you called it, had earned itself a mandate.
The broadened political space had opened the floodgates to general defiance. The censorship offices still shut down news stories on subjects such as the monkhood, the effects of the fighting in northern and still politically outlying Kachin state, or the corruption among the tycoons whose closed-door deals with the senior generals and counterparts across Asia had locked down much of the country’s resources for an indefinite future. Still, journalists ignored reprimands from the Press Scrutiny Board and published anyway; factory workers held days-long strikes for better pay and conditions, secretly nudged on with food and pay from dissident groups; and popular opposition swelled against various dam and oil projects, empowered from the success of the campaign to suspend work on the hydropower project at the mouth of the Irrawaddy.
“They cheated in 2010, they want to be seen as neutral in 2012. But no one can say they will be neutral and independent in 2015,” said Phyo Min Thein, a forty-three-year-old former political prisoner who won a seat for the NLD in Lhegu constituency. “Sanctions will be lifted, they will be a legal government, then in 2015 a question will appear. That is, in 2015, the NLD will win. Clearly, it will win. But the question is: Will they give up the power at the time?”
Names were still recorded, photos still snapped, and some of the toughest laws had yet to vanish, even layered under new reforms: including prohibitions on free association, on registering with local authorities when you slept overnight away from home; on communicating with vaguely defined “illegal groups.”
“Old habits die hard,” said U Ye Htut, director general of public information at the Ministry of Information, by way of explanation. Even as President Thein Sein’s agenda hardened into undeniable reform, the government’s motives remained enigmatic. “People say we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Grandpa had said. “But we are still in the tunnel.”
The first hiccup came fast.
Suu Kyi, reading over the constitution one more time in anticipation of attending the next week’s parliamentary session, noticed a clause that required new parliamentarians to swear an oath in which they would promise to “safeguard” the constitution. For a party that had stumped on a trio of pledges—rule of law, internal peace, and amending the constitution—agreeing to stand by that wording could backfire. Changing the constitution without a 75 percent Parliamentary majority was in any case technically impossible.
With Thar beside him, Nyan Win shot back to Naypyitaw. No time for a bus, they hired a cab. Short of a concession from Thein Sein, the new parliamentarians would boycott their first session.
The move might have been a brilliant gamble. Suu Kyi and the NLD could do no wrong as Thein Sein hovered on the verge of returning Burma to the fold of acceptable nations. “The NLD Stumbles Out of the Starting Bloc,” cried one column in Mizzima, an influential online exile journal that had formerly operated out of New Delhi but whose publisher, an old ’88 activist, had lately opened an office back in Burma in a decisive symbol of conciliation. The political stalemate divided supporters, and froze cold some of the foreign observers who had been salivating about the impending end to sanctions, which meant a free-for-all into the country’s virgin markets. Once again, they suggested, the NLD had proven its political ineptitude.
In the end, the NLD backed down.
Weeks later, on June 16, Suu Kyi stood before assembled luminaries in Oslo, Norway, delivering a belated acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in absentia twenty-one years earlier: “Without faith in the future, without the conviction that democratic values and fundamental human rights are not only necessary but possible for our society, our movement could not have been sustained throughout the destroying years. Some of our warriors fell at their post, some deserted us, but a dedicated core remained strong and committed. At times when I think of the years that have passed, I am amazed that so many remained staunch under the most trying circumstances. Their faith in our cause is not blind; it is based on a clear-eyed assessment of their own powers of endurance and a profound respect for the aspirations of our people.”
We are at the beginning of the beginning.
Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.