Lifestyle & Belief

Burma: An aging Aung San Suu Kyi appeals to young voters


Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets the crowds from a vehicle during campaigning in the Delta region on her second campaign trip on Feb. 7, 2012 in Pathein.


Paula Bronstein

PATHEIN, Burma — Carrying herself with regal poise earlier this week, Aung San Suu Kyi stuck her emerald-clad upper-half out the sunroof of a Mitsubishi Pajero. 

Burma's pro-democracy darling waved gracefully as her motorcade steadily picked up followers, rumbling its way through the rice paddies of the Irrawaddy Delta toward a stadium where thousands more awaited her arrival.

The Lady, as she is affectionately called, is back on the scene and making a splash.

Released from house arrest in November 2010, Suu Kyi has become synonymous with a new Burma, one that is experiencing a host of new reforms that seem to appear one after another at a dizzying pace. In the last several weeks alone, Burma's government has announced reforms ranging from cease-fires with ethnic minorities, some of whom have been fighting for independence for 60 years, to the relaxation of press censorship.

And now with by-elections scheduled for April 1, Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy opposition party, is on the campaign trail for the first time since 1989.

But unlike the supporters who backed her then — those who rose up alongside Suu Kyi during the 1988 protests, many of whom are now, like her, in their 60s — those lining the route Tuesday were mostly young men under the age of 30, who came of age while Suu Kyi was muzzled and under house arrest.

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Despite the fact that she rose to recognition with a previous generation, Suu Kyi appeals to the younger demographic in Burma now.

This was not always a given. Apologists for the regime said she was an outdated vestige of a bygone time, and no longer held sway.

But her appeal to Burma's younger voters, as evidenced by those who came out to see her in the delta's Pathein on Tuesday, suggests that not only will she win a seat in parliament, but that she remains a powerful and influential figure with widespread support in Burma.

Just ask Lin Lin, a 31-year-old with a Nirvana "Nevermind" tattoo.

"Yes, she is cool. She makes jokes. She can talk with anyone," said Lin Lin, who is a member of Generation Wave, an activist hip-hop group recently returned from exile.

"To me, her following means there is still a sense of heroism in Burmese politics," he said.

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The fact that Suu Kyi's image was forbidden for most of the past two decades while she was under house arrest seems to have made it more appealing to many of today's young adults.

"I would stand between her and a gun. Almost anyone would say the same," said another supporter, a young man who wore a bandana onto which he had sewn photos of Suu Kyi and her father. He had come there for the chance to see her in person, but declined to give his name for fear that any association with the opposition could still carry punishment of some kind — a persistent fear carried over from a pre-reform Burma that hints at the leaps and bounds still ahead of the nascent democracy.

Zi Mai Aung, a 36-year-old recently released political prisoner, says that as a teenager she hid Suu Kyi's photograph under her mattress. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November of 2010, but only in recent months have newspapers been allowed to print her photograph.

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To young people, the memory of the 2007 Saffron Revolution — a series of non-violent anti-regime protests brought on by the government's unannounced decision to remove fuel subsidies — remains fresh. They may not have risen up with Suu Kyi in 1988, but they appear as reverent as those who did.

"She speaks the truth. She is not afraid of anybody," said Sherry Win, 23, who brought her 1-year-old baby to the rally.

"She's our spiritual mother," said Yi Mon Shein, a 24-year-old from Pathein in the delta, the area hit worst by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

"She sacrificed her family life for the people," said Min Htut Win, referring to the fact that Suu Kyi was prevented from seeing her family while under house arrest. The 31-year-old goldsmith came two hours by boat to see the candidate in person for the first time in his life.

As Suu Kyi's entourage ran along irrigation canals in the blistering heat, her bodyguards sometimes held a parasol over her that was green like her shirt, a color representing regeneration.

Since Suu Kyi is running to represent a poorer district of Rangoon — not to mention the fact that she is all but assured a win — her tour of the delta was less to gain voter support than it was to be among her people for the first time in decades.

"Please don't get between me and the people," she told members of the media scrum threatening to engulf her SUV.

In banners, T-shirts, and in living room portraits, Suu Kyi is often pictured next to her father, who was assassinated when she was 2. The two are considered heroes, though they stand for different things.

Trained by the Japanese, Gen. Aung San is considered the father of modern Burma. He fought first alongside and then against the British. While he founded Burma's army, his daughter espouses nonviolence. Widowed by a Tibetan scholar, she is a vocal advocate for the ethnic minorities that have been seeking autonomy from the Burmese military.

One volunteer at the National League for Democracy headquarters is a 21-year-old from Kachin state. "She favors ethnic groups, and she always sets apart majority rule and minority rights," said Su Htwe Naing, from Mohyin. "We admire her because of her ability, and because she wants to negotiate with the government for us."

What's unclear is how her "people power" will translate once she's on the inside, in the nation's isolated political capital. Some activists object to her joining the parliament in an outnumbered position.

Says Kyaw San Win, "Everybody wants her to be president. If you or I were in power, we might use the position to enrich ourselves. But she didn't do that. She looks after the people, whatever she does. We need this kind of leader."

But what young people in Burma need is also up for debate. Some seem to be less concerned with politics than they are with economic development.

"My dad says everything is changing. It's happening fast," said Bilal, 18. "But for me, no, it's not fast enough, because all over the world people can get iPhone 4g and 4s. Why shouldn't we?"