Photo Essay by Abhijit Dutta*
It was not too long ago when Burma, or Myanmar as it was renamed in 1989, was considered in the same league as failed states like North Korea or Iran. Human rights violations, crushing poverty, absence of a free press, a crisis of healthcare, brutal dictatorship, and complete isolation – this was the context in which news of Burma reached us, if at all. Yet amidst the despondency, there was always one name that we wanted to hang our hopes on: Aung San Suu Kyi.
For over two decades now, Suu Kyi’s silent, peaceful, meditative protest from behind locked doors has become a symbol of resistance the world over, lending her an aura comparable to that of Gandhi (of whom she is an admirer) and Mandela. But hope – as Suu Kyi learned first-hand in 1990 – is an ephemeral thing in Burma.
Yet hope seems to have regained currency. In 2010, Daw Suu, the honorific title by which Suu Kyi is more commonly referred to, was inexplicably released from house arrest and this April allowed to stand for office. In a move fitting her image as a savior, she chose to run for the seat representing the township of Kawhmu, outside Yangon, in the elections; Kawhmu was among the areas worst affected during the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, and is a symbol of the military’s humanitarian failure. Expectedly, she won.
Unlike 1990, the verdict – a landslide victory for Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) – was respected and, for the first time in her twenty-four years of struggle, she walked into the country’s parliament as an elected representative of her people.
Still, Suu Kyi, who has been on a whirlwind tour of Europe over the past week collecting awards and addressing audiences ranging from royalty to rock stars, has counseled against “reckless optimism.” She might even point out that, after all, peacocks – a prominent symbol in Burma’s history and featured on her party’s flag – cannot fly. But anyone who has witnessed the country’s mood these last few months cannot help but believe in her power to make the impossible possible.
In this photo essay, composed during the weeks leading up to and following Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic win in the April elections, I focus on some of the major changes that have marked this improbable “flight of the golden peacock.”
1. A young monk wears the white star and golden peacock insignia of the NLD. Monks of Burma have been among the staunchest supporters of Suu Kyi, and their “saffron revolution” of 2007 still counts as among the most important protests since the first uprising in 1988.
2. An NLD campaign poster in Yangon, the former capital of Burma and its largest city. In a move that remains unexplained today, the nominally civilian government headed by President Thein Sein initiated a series of political reforms after coming to power in 2010, including releasing Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners, and allowing the NLD to re-register as a political party and participate in elections.
3. For the better part of the two decades prior to 2010, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest behind these gates.
4. Once released, Suu Kyi did not waste any time, committing herself to a punishing schedule of campaigning with her party members in the run-up to the historic elections of April 2012.
5. An enthusiastic Suu Kyi greets visitors at the NLD party headquarters in downtown Yangon. Until recently, a visit to this office was sufficient to put someone on the government’s radar, or even lead to imprisonment.
6. In marked contrast to the time when Suu Kyi’s image was effectively banned, today streets across Burma – like this one in the former royal capital of Mandalay – are festooned with posters and graphics of Suu Kyi and her father, General Aung San, who was a major figure in Burma’s independence movement.
7. Originally denied permission to shoot in Burma, Luc Besson’s 2012 biopic of Suu Kyi, The Lady (starring Michelle Yeoh and David Thewlis), now provides Suu Kyi’s devotees with an iconic image emblazoned on everything from handbags to umbrellas.
8. Supporters can now wear their support for the NLD and Suu Kyi on their sleeve...or cheeks.
9. Locals are now more comfortable speaking with journalists, a major shift after years of Orwellian state controls. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division has recently announced that it will shut down its offices, making way for an independent press council to be formed by journalists.
10. With relaxation of political restrictions, branch offices of the NLD have mushroomed all over the country. This one, both home and headquarters of the local NLD leader in Hsipaw in Burma’s northeastern Shan state, is among the newest.
11. The release of political prisoners constitutes some of the most dramatic changes since 2010. Ma Thida, arrested for her role in the original student movement known as the ’88 Generation and kept in subhuman conditions at the infamous Insein prison in Rangoon (present day Yangon), is today the editor-in-chief of an influential local language daily, The Myanmar Independent.
12. All of these changes have allowed Suu Kyi to campaign effectively, and to reach out people across the country. Few contemporary politicians in the world today command as much devotion and reverence from their people as Aung San Suu Kyi.
13. In keeping with her image as a savior – most people will only refer to her as “Mother Suu” – Suu Kyi chose Burma’s most impoverished constituency, Kawhmu, to contest the 2012 elections. One of the regions worst affected by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Kawhmu is subject to crushing poverty and nonexistent infrastructure. Suu Kyi’s embrace has been a source of great sustenance for the local community.
14. Villagers in Kawhmu wait to see Suu Kyi and to give her bunches of violets, her favorite flower.
15. Locals in Kawhmu campaigning on Suu Kyi’s behalf.
16. Suu Kyi’s return to political prominence has sparked a booming t-shirt trade. This shop in particular, located adjacent to the NLD party headquarters, is constantly thronged by locals and tourists alike, all looking to take a bit of Aung San Suu Kyi home with them.
17. Suu Kyi greeted by supporters after news of her victory.
18. Jubilant monks cross the iconic U Bein’s bridge in Amarapura, the world’s longest teak bridge, as news of the NLD sweeping 43 of the 44 seats it contested poured in.
*Abhijit Dutta is a writer-photographer working with narratives in travel, culture and politics, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on South and South East Asia. He has most recently written about East Timor, Myanmar, Kashmir and Cambodia. His work has appeared in Mint (a WSJ partner in India), Lonely Planet Magazine India, Lonely Planet Magazine Asia, National Geographic Traveller India, Times of India Crest, The Caravan, Kafila, Outlookindia, and Gadling (an AOL-Huffington Post blog), among several others. He can be contacted at abhijitduttaphotography.com