My first impression: This is like a rock concert. Thousands of sweaty bodies pressing forward towards the stage, craning their necks to hear the star of the show; vendors weaving through the crowd selling water and fruit as a man climbs a tree to get a clearer view of the action.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech to the public on 14 November, one day after she was released after more than seven years under house arrest, drew thousands — most reports put the attendance at 10,000 — of supporters out onto the streets of Yangon, blocking roads and causing traffic chaos.
I suspect most people, like me, heard little of what she said. The speech was regularly interrupted by ripples of applause that spread from the front to the very back of the audience and chants in Burmese of "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, may you be healthy".
After quoting her father, independence hero General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi said the government had treated her relatively well while in detention.
"If only they treated the people in the same way," she said, standing beside portraits of her and her father, dressed in the traditional Burmese longyi and wearing flowers in her hair.
"She has metta," said one man beside me, referring to the concept of loving kindness that Buddhists try to cultivate towards every being, including their enemies. "That’s why the generals are still afraid of her."
All around me people held up their mobile phones and digital cameras, trying to capture a permanent audio or visual reminder of what was her first public speech in more than seven years. It was almost as if they could not believe the moment had arrived. For many younger people, it was the first time they had seen her speak.
The sight of all these digital devices, symbols of material wealth, seemed to surprise Aung San Suu Kyi; when she was taken into custody in 2003, Burma barely had a mobile phone network. Similarly, when she was released at 5pm on Saturday, Facebook and other websites immediately began buzzing with words and images from the inside.
These are, however, mostly cosmetic changes. The generals are still well in control and the majority of Burmese people continue to live in poverty.
Nevertheless, Aung San Suu Kyi is also entering a new political environment, as many analysts have pointed out. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), might still be the focal point of international support for democratic change here but it’s not the only game in town anymore.
It’s not even a registered party, although the government last week signalled in an editorial published in state-run media that it would be possible for the NLD to reregister, provided that the party’s leaders accept the 2008 constitution and existing laws. Some are expecting the NLD to take up that opportunity.
"Her main task will probably be to try to rebuild her party so that they can participate in the next election," Trevor Wilson, a former Australian ambassador to Burma, told AFP.
She has already offered an olive branch to her former captors as well as the groups that contested the 2010 election — apparently against her wishes — saying that the NLD would try to "engage with everybody who we think would help the democratic process".
Her former colleagues who founded the National Democratic Force (NDF) to contest the election have always maintained that they want to join forces with her again, despite the NLD calling on the public to refrain from voting. "She is welcome to join us any time after she is released," NDF co-founder U Khin Maung Swe told me in May, after the NLD was deregistered. "We still think of her as our leader."
"We felt that [as the NLD]we did not get to carry out our duty to transform the country into a democracy. We are still loyal to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and our former party. But this duty is still on our shoulders," he said, explaining why he and other senior NLD members made the difficult decision to form the NDF. NLD members say she is also likely to enter discussions with ethnic parties, which were more successful than Burmese opposition groups in the election and therefore have more influence in parliament.
The question is the manner in which she draws these groups together. Will she be willing to make concessions and deviate from the NLD’s hard-line stance? That she still has the support of the majority of the public is unquestionable; throughout the election campaign, there were no events that came close to matching Sunday’s speech in terms of public participation.
Parties cited fear as a primary reason for why they opted to keep campaigning low key. However, there was little fear on display yesterday. This support will present her with an opportunity to unite and strengthen opposition groups both inside and outside parliament.
One possible danger is that The Lady, as she is widely known, may instead encourage the democratic parties to boycott the sitting of parliament, as she did with the NLD and the National Convention that drafted the 2008 constitution. It is a move that would almost certainly be counterproductive. The parliament will sit regardless of whether democratic and ethnic candidates participate. Having these voices in a position where they can speak out from the inside, in a legitimate forum, will be vitally important.
"I respect and value all of the voters for their decision and I want to tell them not to be down about the result. They should remain engaged in politics," one of the NDF’s 16 successful candidates, Dr Myat Nyarna Soe, told local newspaper The Myanmar Times last week. "I will act as a voice for the people … we value [voters’] trust and I promise that it will be worth it."
Boycotting the parliaments will almost certainly set both moderate and hard-line elements in the opposition on a collision course with the military. They would come out the worse for wear, as the NLD has for much of the past 20 years.
Already there are concerns that the "emotional outpourings from international journalists, campaigners and worthy pop stars alike seem to be having just the effect that Myanmar’s ruling generals presumably wanted — distracting attention from their sham elections".
There is palpable anger at the vote rigging which took place over the 7 November election. A new space for political discussion has opened up and, particularly in Yangon, voters are still dissecting the manner in which the military engineered the result. Rather than detract from support for the opposition groups that took part, it appears to have had a galvanising effect. Their conduct — thanking voters and vowing to fight on within the laws — will ensure they continue to win over the public.
That is, provided they are not denigrated by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for their stance.
Many of those who chose to vote on 7 November are also supporters of her party. "I support the NLD not contesting the election. We don’t want to see them take part and lose," one Facebook user from Burma wrote days before in the days before the election.
"But the more I think deeply about it, the more I realise it is impossible not to vote. There is no doubt the government will win but at least we can vote for the party we like. If we don’t vote we will lose that right. After living in the dark, blindfolded, for more than 20 years, that’s a small step forward."
Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would do well to listen to these voices.
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