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The kind faces of several women wearing beautiful longyis greeted the trekkers and welcomed us into the headquarter office of the National League for Democracy. Larger-than-life banners and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” of Myanmar, surrounded the small entrance to their party office. On either side of the front door were street coffee vendors with kid-sized plastic chairs and tables covered in dirt, with stray dogs and cats lazily hanging out under the vendors’ carts, finding respite from the humid heat. (Remember, this is in the middle of June.) These coffee vendors were seen everywhere across Yangon. As someone who has been following the NLD’s activities for some years now, I was greatly looking forward to this particular meeting. I looked at my classmates’ faces and observed slight bewilderment as they looked around with wide eyes. I knew what they were thinking: could this be the party headquarters office for the NLD? The party of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the beautiful face and incorruptible figure of Myanmar in western media? The room we walked into past the front door was dimly lit with an odd, yellow-ish light. Piles of old newspapers were scattered across table tops with few older men and women reading books, some on cell phones, casually fanning themselves. A few turned to look at who entered the office, and, with equal disinterest, turned back to what they were doing.
In a single-file line, we walked up a narrow flight of wooden stairs to the second floor, which was even hotter than the first floor. A non-English speaking elderly woman directed me and my friends into their conference room. This was another poorly lit room with a dozen or so chairs surrounding the four wooden tables pressed together. Old photos and bulletins of the NLD party were tacked onto the wooden columns around the room. More piles of newspapers and bulletins decorated this room, along with bronze busts of The Lady, and outdated NLD calendars. We sat around, murmuring amongst ourselves, red in the face from the heat, seeking direction for how we were going to spend the next hour together.
I was assigned to moderate this session, so I was getting pretty nervous as the older men in the room were not providing any direction. Someone said “Ah, I didn’t know so many people were coming” and yelled for more chairs. Plastic chairs were sent in, but the small space couldn’t hold forty chairs, so many stood, others perched on table corners. I took the seat next to the men wearing longyis and waited for everyone to get situated. Two fans were sent in, and I watched as my beautiful German classmate tried to plug the fan in. The plug refused to stay in the outlet; it kept falling out. She tried all sorts of angles to keep the plug inside the outlet, but this turned out to be a fruitless effort. Each time the plug fell out and the fan stopped, more classmates became agitated. Given how hot the air was, people sitting in that area were desperate for this sputtering fan to work. I turned to the speakers who were watching this same scene with amusement, and then turned back at my friends, determined to get this fan to work. I thought to myself, slightly annoyed, “Gosh, how many Harvard graduate students does it take to plug in a fan?” Another classmate offered to hold the plug into the outlet, but there wasn’t enough space for him to squeeze in around the others, so the fan issue was dropped. No more fan. I noticed that this conference room didn’t have a door in the door frame.
Three very old gentlemen, dark skinned, wearing collarless dress shirts and green longyis, stood next to me, waiting silently as the forty guests got settled in. These were patient men. Patient men with extreme gravitas, the type of weight and dignity that comes only with age, experience, and hardship. They have been fighting for democracy in their country that was previously controlled by a military dictatorship for decades. They had no problem waiting a few extra minutes for their fidgety guests to settle down.
I peered around the room, looked up at the three gentlemen from my seat, took a deep breath, smiled, and asked the group, “Shall we start?”
The three men who held top leadership roles spoke to us at length about party’s efforts to engage the country’s youth and to incorporate them into the ongoing process of democratization. They shared some facts with us:
- Among the 1.3 million NLD members across the country, 50,000 are under 30 years of age.
- There are 280 township youth conferences
- NLD runs 200 schools and provide free education, targeting students from poor backgrounds. They engage 20,000 students and about 1,000 teachers
They smiled, joking that they– at 65 and 70 years of age — were the young ones in the party, alluding to the reality that only small pockets of Myanmar’s youth are actively engaged in politics and efforts for social change. These are men who have been involved with the party since its inception in 1988, and have been part of the political struggle to open up Myanmar long before the 8888 Uprising. As part of their description of the difficulties of engaging youth into national politics, the men also stated that 1 million of Myanmar’s youth are currently working in Thailand. Right when the country opened up with its first democratic elections in 2010, much of the frustrated youth tried to leave their country to pursue opportunities abroad. The combination of brain drain, corruption and mismanagement of resources at the national level, poverty, and ethnic strife continually disillusions this country’s young people — as it would in any other country — from getting involved in politics. This leaves the “young people,” the 60, 70 year old men and women, to push forward in this effort to democratize and unify a country marked with 65 years of domestic conflict and its continuing legacy, 135 ethnic groups (and many more unrecognized ethnic groups), and widespread poverty.
Ninety edifying (and very hot) minutes of discussion later, we made our way back to the rickety entrance of the building, and spent some time buying NLD paraphernalia, mostly with The Lady’s beautiful face on it. NLD was built around, and continues to be centered on, Aung San Suu Kyi, and this was reinforced when I looked around the NLD’s “concession stand.” T-shirts in different colors, books, calendars, fans, pamphlets, posters, pins all with images of her beautiful face and orchids in her updo were all for sale, presumably for mainly foreigners’ consumption. I bought a book on The Lady written by her cook who stayed in her home during her two decade-long house arrest. I also took a few photos with several young women who worked at the front desk who were wearing longyis and wore the Tha Nat Khar, the yellowish-white make up made from ground wood with which women paint shapes onto their faces. We all said Khay Zoo Tin Bar Dae, which means thank you, and parted ways.
We piled on the bus and debriefed the session. Some of my classmates expressed deep frustration and disappointment of the party leaders’ calm and peaceful demeanor that lacked an aura of urgency, passion, and verve. “No wonder Myanmar’s peace process is so slow,” a friend chided. Another classmate complained that the party leaders were too skittish about difficult subjects, such as the severe persecution of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State (which some refer to as the Rohingyas genocide), and the future of the NLD after Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer able to be politically active.
While these critical comments were being tossed around in our bus, I thought back to the old, wrinkled faces of the men who spoke, and imagined what their lives as political activists must have been like. How tired they must be. How drained they must be from fighting for a political situation that their nation could enjoy, without having sufficient funding, resources, or public recognition. How exhausted they must be from fighting for democratic values in a military dictatorship, and then not have widespread popular support when the country does open up. Of course there is no spirited zest, or a pep in their step! How could outsiders such as ourselves, who have no skin in the game, the game that is Myanmar’ democratic future, demand that these decades-old fighters have a renewed sense of almost juvenile-like rebellious spirit? This has been their lifelong commitment, and I honor their past, their continuing dedication to their country’s future, and their devotion to a democratic society.
I do not know what it is like to continually face physical and psychological danger to fight for something I crave, and I certainly do not know what it’s like to fight the same fight for decades without seeing an end in sight. But what I could reasonably suspect is that this ongoing fight for democracy by not just the NLD, but other political parties and organizations, is going to be a long, arduous journey.