What t-shirts can teach us about democracy in Myanmar

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 [[[march 14]]] 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.?

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