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Myanmar: On the trail of heroes

A face of distinction: Memorabilia featuring images of Aung San Suu Kyi and logos of her National League for Democracy party for sale at an NLD office in Yangon. Photo by The Nation

Publication Date : 21-11-2012


Aung San Suu Kyi's face graces an array of colourful T-shirts, Myanmar-language books, calendars, mugs and more in the front of a busy National League for Democracy (NLD) office in central Yangon.

Pins, wristbands, key chains, stickers and other souvenirs sporting the red NLD party flag are also being snapped up by locals and travellers. Their being sold in the open like this would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago.

Yet the landmark 2010 elections, which at the time were denounced by many as a sham, have indeed triggered a wave of apparently durable social and political reforms.

The Lady is now a member of Parliament and is reckoned by many of her supporters to be zooming unswervingly down a path to the presidency in the 2015 elections. For evidence they point to the dramatic success of her NLD party in April's by-elections, the latest proof of her soaring stature. Millions of them hope that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is destined to rise from dissident to president.

NLD workers at their office, which is just 10-minute walk north from Shwedagon Pagoda, scurry about, holding discussions and visibly relishing their newly won freedom. This activity is a dynamic symbol of the changes electrifying this rapidly reawakening country.

A short taxi ride north of the office lies another attraction for local and foreign visitors alike: the gateway to The Lady's home on University Avenue along scenic Inya Lake, and the wall from which during her long tenure under house arrest, she gave inspirational speeches to her devoted followers.

Travellers often have the drivers of one of Yangon's taxis briefly stop here so they can hop out and photograph each other in front of the pairs of NLD flags under the gateway beneath a simple portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San.

A more intimate and meaningful glimpse into the lives of this famous family awaits at the homey Bogyoke Aung San Museum, located on a 2.4-acre plot of land in a tranquil residential section of central Yangon not far from the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The 91-year-old British-colonial house, where Aung San lived from May 1945 until his assassination in July 1947, stands testament to the legacy of the General, who is regarded as the father of modern Myanmar. It was closed from 1999 to 2007, while undergoing renovation. From 2007 to early 2012 the museum was only open every July 19, the date of Aung San's assassination. But since March 24 - just a few days before Aung San Suu Kyi's by-election victory - the museum has been open five days a week.

Black-and-white photos of the family of Aung San, his wife Khin Kyi and their three young children including Suu Kyi as a youngster, plus a few stately portraits of the General, are found around the simply furnished two-storey home. The bookshelf of the well-read General is filled with an impressive collection of titles on many topics, particularly history and warfare, such as "The Problem of India", "Through the Fog of War" and "Elementary Applied Mechanics".

The dining-room table features signs marking the places where the five members of the family dined. At the head of the table sat Aung San, who was faced on the other side by Khin Kyi. In between are places for Aung San Suu Kyi and her two elder brothers, Aung San Oo and Aung San Lin, plus a few guests.

More accessible still, and where photography is allowed inside, unlike at the museum, is another fine old British villa, now aptly called the House of Memories. Here, a unique slice of history is served up along with some of the best - and surprisingly affordable - Myanmar food in town, plus equally tasty Indian and Thai dishes, which are offered in refined, colonial-style environs.

The restaurant's owner was a friend of the General's, and on the house's second floor Aung San kept a secret office. Nearby the office is a meeting room that was also used by the General, where visitors are asked if they want to try out a reclining chair once used by Aung San.

The legacy of this special father-daughter duo seems to grow by the day. While recently Suu Kyi was criticised for not speaking out enough on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, her reputation remains largely undiminished in the eyes of most Myanmar people.

A big front-page photo in the Myanmar Times of Suu Kyi returning to the country in early October after a two-week US visit, in which she accepted the Congressional Gold Medal, was captioned "A hero returns". Upon landing at Yangon airport, she was greeted by thousands of her compatriots who had arrived hours earlier to wait for a chance to see her.

Over the next few, Myanmar and the world will see whether ascending to the position of national leader that history stole from Bogyoke Aung San will be his daughter's destiny. Certainly, her winning the presidency would be a fitting way to mark the 100th birth anniversary of her father on Feb 13, 2015.


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