Nearly every story out of Myanmar lately has mentioned the image of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on newspaper front pages and on T-shirts. Certainly the news photos of Suu Kyi do signal greater media freedom in a country where just months ago people feared even speaking the name Suu Kyi. But the T-shirts suggest a more complicated story — of both new confidence in Myanmar’s future and enduring anxiety about the military that still controls the government.
The T-shirts have certainly changed the face of the T-shirt printing shops along Gabar Aye Pagoda Road in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. In the busiest of them, owner Daw Baby has replaced the Chinese-made Manchester United and Arsenal T-shirts with her own. Her employees have printed shirts with the face of Suu Kyi or the fighting peacock-and-star logo of the opposition party she founded, the National League for Democracy (the NLD). Daw Baby says sales have quadrupled.
In one sense, this is a sign of great change: after years of house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi is a candidate in today's national by-elections to fill 48 vacant seats in the Parliament. She draws crowds of tens of thousands at campaign stops. When she went to Mandalay in early March, it took her motorcade six hours to drive into town from the airport through a sea of motorbike-riding supporters. Normally the trip takes an hour.
But something is amiss. In a week of traveling the streets of Yangon on the eve of the elections, I have not seen a single person wearing an NLD T-shirt.
“People support the NLD, but they don’t dare display their support openly,” says Daw Baby. “They’re still afraid.”
That fear is founded in a history of repression by the military governments of Myanmar, formerly Burma. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 led to the deaths of an estimated 3,000 people, many of them students. When the NLD won the 1990 parliamentary elections, its candidates were never allowed to take their seats. Suu Kyi herself was under house arrest for 15 of the 22 years preceding her release in December 2010. And as recently as two weeks ago government censors struck out a paragraph in her official campaign speech on state television, criticism of the military’s disregard of rule of law.
Still, this time, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners and front-page stories on ”the Lady,” the changes seem less reversible than before. People now talk more openly about their political views. Taxi drivers put putting NLD stickers on windshields and dashboards. Democracy advocates post Facebook pages. Monks who organized protests in 2007 now carry phones.
Daw Baby hasn’t calculated exactly how many shirts she’s sold but says she fills orders of 300 to 400 shirts at a time for sale by the NLD, and she sells more herself at $3 each. Red shirts are the most popular. Remarkably, Daw Baby says she hasn’t been harassed by a single member of police intelligence, which the Burmese refer to in English as “the Special Branch.”
As Daw Baby makes change for a customer, her employees dry newly inked red shirts with hand-held hair dryers. The shop, called Tet Len, or “the path forward,” is one of three storefronts in the T-shirt district that feature pro-democracy shirts, NLD flags and stickers. (Printers in an adjacent shop that prints shirts for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party work behind closed doors.)
The problem is that this room to breathe has been granted by a government that can restore its chokehold at will. The government has warned that amnesty for prisoners can be revoked on the slightest pretext. The pro-military constitution remains unchanged; even if the NLD wins every seat it seeks in Parliament, the military will control. And so people in Myanmar are hedging their bets.
Daw Baby thinks she’ll see the shirts again today, on Election Day. “The city will be all in red on April first,” she says. Maybe so, but free expression in Myanmar still requires the anonymity of the crowd.
Cathy Shufro is reporting from Myanmar on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.
Photo courtesy Cathy Shufro.