What T-Shirts Can Teach Us About Democracy in Myanmar
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.”