IN ANY OTHER COUNTRY, the scene would have seemed normal. Hundreds of noisy people had gathered at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Bahan, a prosperous township of Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon, to celebrate the party’s likely victory in Parliament by-elections. When I arrived at 3 pm, NLD candidates—including the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi—were reportedly leading in 35 of the 44 constituencies they had contested.
For an opposition party that had won an election 22 years ago but had never been allowed to form a government, whose leaders and members had spent long years in jail, this was an impressive showing. But NLD supporters knew it would not amount to much: in a Parliament with 664 seats, 25 percent of which are reserved for serving military officers, the NLD’s new presence would be tiny. What was significant was less the result than the fact that it had even been possible: that largely fair elections took place, that the NLD participated (they had boycotted the 2010 polls) and most of all, that the government seemed likely to accept the results.
On that warm evening in April, men and women of all ages could be seen in red T-shirts outside the party office, smiling, hugging their friends, with tears in their eyes. Before long, the scene resembled an impromptu street party: a few NLD workers were shuffling disc after disc of hip-hop into an overworked music system placed precariously on a wobbly wooden table. When the exiled singer Lashio Thein Aung’s popular song ‘Daw Suu Is Coming Back’ came on, the crowd began to twist and dance.