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Myanmar elections: A hold-your-breath moment for freedom and Aung San Suu Kyi

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Two hours before the event, thousands of people filled the streets, jostling for a place to see “The Lady” appear on a balcony. Fathers wearing new T-shirts sporting Suu Kyi’s picture held up children to see. On one side of me stood a farmer in a traditional peasant straw hat. On the other, a shop girl in a faded cotton sarong waved a little red flag with the fighting peacock emblem of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Buddhist monks in burnt-orange robes walked slowly through the crowd as if they were just out seeking morning alms and “happened” to be on the block. They had paid a deadly price for protesting in the streets during the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007. They seem less visible now.

Just a year ago, the monks and the farmer and the shop girl might have been arrested for being there. At this rally, there was a lot of anxious looking-around in the crowd, as if army trucks could roll up at any time.

The only one who seemed totally at ease was Aung San Suu Kyi. When she emerged on the balcony, she spoke to the tens of thousands of people as if they were visitors in her living room. She joked, “People from other parties can vote for us – we don’t discriminate.”

With her trademark spray of flowers tucked into the back of her hair, she still has the look of an Asian Audrey Hepburn, but her earnest speeches reflect her Oxford-educated pedigree. She talked about the need for rule of law to protect people’s rights, and solutions to the widespread poverty in Myanmar, where the average income is $2.20 a day. New foreign investment will help create some needed jobs short-term, she said, but “if our people are not educated, the country can’t develop.”

Suu Kyi said she had come that day primarily to support Dr. May Win Myint, the local NLD candidate. Dr. Myint was elected to parliament in 1990, but like Suu Kyi, was never allowed to serve and spent seven years in prison. After her release, Myint went back to work, treating victims of leprosy and distributing food to the needy.

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