Asia
4:50 pm
Fri March 30, 2012

Myanmar Hurriedly Prepares For An Election

Originally published on Fri March 30, 2012 5:33 pm

In Myanmar's capital, Yangon, there's an unremarkable old building that's drawing people from around the world.

It's the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the political opposition party headed by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. This weekend, she is running for elective office for the first time, and the humble house has become the focus of even greater attention.

When Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by a military dictatorship, there would never have been so many foreign journalists at the NLD offices. Now that the country has a nominally civilian government, more journalists are being allowed in, and they pack the room. An NLD activist and former member of Parliament with the improbable name of Nine Nine gives a tour of the headquarters.

"This office is the office for financial assistance to political prisoners — this table and this office," he says. "This is the office of the youth, central NLD youth office. This is the office, temporary office of the campaign committee."

Students and teachers come here to celebrate national day. Overdressed diplomats and journalists sweat through press briefings under antiquated electric fans. Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi are everywhere, including one with her famous quote: "There will be change because all the military have are guns."

This is where Suu Kyi addresses her followers, and lucky tourists can often catch a glimpse of The Lady with flowers in her hair, bustling upstairs for party meetings. A few unarmed guards provide minimal security.

Out Of Jail, Back To Politics

It seems like just about everyone working here is a pro-democracy activist, many of whom did jail time under the junta, including Nine Nine.

"I spent 17 years and four months in jail after being elected in 1990," he says. "Seventeen years and four months. I just step out from the jail, I come right to this place, before I go to my home."

Nine Nine says what makes this place feel like home is not the physical space, but the people.

"I don't have any, I mean, personal feeling about the building," he says. "But, see, I'm quite glad, after staying in the prison for years, and when I step into this place, there are still some people who greet me. 'Hey, Nine Nine' they say. This is one of the amazing moments in my life."

Although the NLD is over two decades old, it's still recovering from being disbanded by the government in 2010, when the party boycotted the general elections. The NLD may not have a lot of money or a fancy headquarters, but it's got a valuable resource in its legions of devoted followers.

Just take cook Sanbar Myint, for example. She and the other NLD cooks whip up big pots of curries, rice and noodles, serving hundreds of meals a day, just out of love for their leader.

"I want to demonstrate women's power by feeding all the activists, just as mother Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrates strength in leading all of us," Myint says.

On your way out the door, you can't miss the NLD merchandising department, where Aung San Suu Kyi baseball caps, polo shirts and key chains are all flying off the shelves. And if music's your thing, there are stacks of CDs for sale with rock, rap and country music, all celebrating The Lady whom everyone wants to meet.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Myanmar, there's an unremarkable old building that's drawing international attention. It's the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. This weekend, she's running for elective office for the first time, and the old house has become the focus of even greater attention.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn sends us this report.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: When Burma was ruled by a military dictatorship, there would never have been so many foreign journalists here. Now they pack the room as an NLD activist and former member of parliament with the improbable name of Nine Nine gives a tour of the headquarters.

NINE NINE: This office is the office for financial assistance to political prisoners - this table and this office. This is the office of the youth, central NLD Youth Office. This is the office, temporary office, of the campaign committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KUHN: Students and teachers come here to celebrate National Day. Overdressed diplomats and journalists sweat through press briefings under antiquated electric fans. Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi are everywhere, including one with her famous quote, "There will be change because all the military have are guns."

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: This is where Suu Kyi addresses her followers and lucky tourists can often catch a glimpse of The Lady with flowers in her hair, bustling upstairs for party meetings. A few unarmed guards provide minimal security. It seems like just about everyone working here is a pro-democracy activist, many of whom did jail time under the junta, including Nine Nine.

NINE: I spent 17 years and four months in jail after being elected in 1990. Seventeen years and four months. I just step out from the jail. I come right to this place before I go to my home. Yeah.

KUHN: Nine Nine says what makes this place feel like home is not the physical space but the people.

NINE: I don't have any, I mean, personal feeling about the buildings. But see, I'm quite glad after staying in the prison for years, and when I step into this place there are still some people who greet me. Hey, Nine Nine, they say. This is one of the amazing moments in my life.

KUHN: Although the NLD is over two decades old, it's still recovering from being disbanded by the government in 2010, when the party boycotted the general elections. The NLD may not have a lot of money or a fancy headquarters, but it's got a valuable resource in its legions of devoted followers.

Just take cook Sanbar Myint, for example. She and the other NLD cooks whip up big pots of curries, rice and noodles, serving hundreds of meals a day just out of love for their leader.

SANBAR MYINT: (Through translator) I want to demonstrate women's power by feeding all the activists, just as mother Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrates strength in leading all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KUHN: On your way out the door, you can't miss the NLD merchandising department, where Aung San Suu Kyi baseball caps, polo shirts, and key chains are all flying off the shelves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUHN: And if music is your thing, there are stacks of CDs for sale with rock, rap and country music, all celebrating The Lady whom everyone wants to meet.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Yangon.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.