We were most excited by the timing of our trip to Myanmar: we would be there during the historic ‘democratic’ elections whereby Aung San Suu Kyi – an international symbol of peace – was openly running for her first parliamentary seat within a country that endured isolationist military dictatorship for over a generation.
I didn’t really plan to get involved. Our Lonely Planet guide (and, of course, the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Office website) always advise that travellers avoid getting involved with demonstrations, riots, mass celebrations, etc – particularly in developing countries. Myanmar, having a particularly bleak track record in how authorities respond to political mobilisation of any sort, arguably wasn’t the best country for ‘testing the waters’, so to speak.
BUT. (There’s always a ‘but’). There was a certain je ne sais quoi about the atmosphere: street vendors selling Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts, key rings, patches and badges in nearly every city and village we visited. Hotels and restaurants all adorned with flags and National League for Democracy campaign memorabilia all over their desks, chairs, walls, etc. Campaigners on the streets chanting various sorts of support to Aung San Suu Kyi through megaphones. Hundreds and hundreds of locals surrounding the National League for Democracy office a day before the elections to listen to speeches and music, all cheering and laughing. Everywhere wearing red t-shirts, red hats, carrying red flags.
Well. It was hard not to join in. Especially because I really really wanted an Aung San Suu Kyi fan. And the locals were lovely. They were happy to see a foreign girl get involved. Three locals volunteered to give me different campaign memorabilia. We walked out of the congregation with many photographs, a fan, two NLD flags, two Aung San Suu Kyi badges pinned onto our shirts and a massive smile on our faces that pretty much lasted the rest of our trip. And – we were fine! Police were everywhere, but they didn’t seem to care.
Maybe it was a sign. A sign that Myanmar really was experiencing positive (and hopefully lasting) democratic change.