“Brutality and neglect by Myanmar’s military regime have created a pariah state with a wretched and desperate people,” wrote the Economist in 2005, several months before my visit. Aung San Suu Kyi was in home detention. “The Lady” as she is known has been detained for years off and on starting in the late 1980s. In 1990, her party, the NLD, won the election, but the military nullified the results, and continued to hold power. Aung San Suu Kyi the following year was awarded the Noble Peace Prize while she was in home detention.
As time marched on, the military loosened their grip allowed partial elections in 2012, which paved the way for Aung San Suu Kyi to take a seat in parliament. Overtime, the military allowed more power sharing allowing The Lady and the NLD to play a more prominent role in the country.
And tragically this slow progress to a more open society ended abruptly on February 1, 2021. Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD were arrested by the military as the nullified the recent elections of 2020.
As I read about the coup d’état I recalled my second trip to Myanmar in 2012. I was living in Phuket for several months and needed to do a visa run. I elected to revisit Burma once again for short trip to Yangon and Bagan. The country had taken steps to open and even had ATMs.
My first trip in 2005 was a guided tour while in 2012 I traveled independently. The difference was stark in a positive manner. As I explored Yangon on foot, I felt the people displayed a sense of optimism and well-being. I was met with smiles.
And I also saw The Lady. Unbeknownst to me, elections were to be held within weeks. And locals were displaying pictures, wearing t-shirts, and reading about her. You would not have seen her photo displayed in 2005.
While being wowed by the temples of Bagan for my second time, a driver I had hired alerted me to a rally. A political rally for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
In Old Bagan, I entered a large open-air courtyard and was immediately consumed by the throng. The overflowing crowd was full of electricity. The NLD’s red and gold was displayed with pride everywhere. Banners, signs, tshirts, posters, hats, and pictures of The Lady.
Men, women, and kids chanted, yelled, and sang. It was rousing and inspiring. A chill slipped down by spine and a tear met my eye. The people were overjoyed with hope. They could taste freedom.