MANDALAY — “NLD must win; the people’s party; NLD to victory… Vote for real change… Vote for the NLD.”
These were the lyrics to a ringtone that blared from the mobile phone of Aye Thin, a woman in her 50s sporting a black t-shirt adorned with a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, the popular chairwoman of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
“I put this song as my ringtone so that it would remind me and everyone who heard it to vote for the NLD,” said Aye Thin, who was attending a festival at a pagoda in Mandalay last week.
Aye Thin is far from alone in passionately expressing her support for the opposition party that is widely tipped to perform strongly in Sunday’s general election.
In early September, just prior to the official start-date for political campaigning, many Mandalay residents began buying up NLD party paraphernalia to show their political stripes. Car owners adorned their vehicles with flags and stickers featuring the party’s well-known fighting peacock logo or pictures of Suu Kyi.
Mandalay-based photographers have organized so-called “Vote for NLD” photo shoots at the corner of the old moat and at U Pein Bridge where hundreds of mainly young supporters have their portraits taken while holding placards or wearing t-shirts in support of the party.
A local bicycle group has held several rides in which participants don red t-shirts—the color most associated with the opposition party—and pedal around the city. Various pop songs written in support of the NLD and performed by well-known local artists have also proven a big hit among the party’s Mandalay-based supporters.
Indeed, Mandalay locals have often remarked that the city seems to have “turned red” for the opposition party as the election date draws near.
Rallies of Red
When official campaigning began on Sept. 8, the NLD and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) organized motorcades in the city.
But whereas the NLD’s parade was accompanied by throngs of flag-waving well-wishers, the USDP’s procession was perceptively more subdued. A subsequent campaign event held by the National Democratic Force (NDF) in Mandalay received only a slightly more enthusiastic welcome from locals.
A major ruling party rally held in October, just a few days after an NLD event at the city’s Manawyaman grounds, attracted many party members, decked out in green, but minimal public interest.
In contrast, at the two NLD events at Manawyaman, Burmese celebrities performed for a sea of red-clad supporters that stretched the grounds’ capacity to the limit.
There is, however, some support for alternative candidates. Former Mandalay mayor and USDP lawmaker Phone Zaw Han is running as an independent candidate for the local parliament in Aung Myay Thar Zan-1.
The ex-mayor is fairly popular among locals for his development initiatives in the city and his perceived tough line against Chinese influence—including an order to local businesses not to use Chinese language signboards.
“I like Phone Zaw Han because he developed our city quite well under his control. I will vote for him because I think he can [prevent] our city from being known as a city of Chinese influence,” said Zin Ko, a grocery store owner in Aung Myay Thar Zan Township.
But a random survey of dozens of locals in several of the city’s busiest areas revealed the overwhelming majority planned to vote for the NLD.
Looking to Election Day
The political fervor has cooled with campaigns now winding down, but local shops and NLD outlets selling party t-shirts, bags and stickers are still busy with customers.
At Zay Cho, Mandalay’s bustling bazaar, many shopkeepers and vendors are keenly anticipating polling day and are eager to show their NLD-themed mobile phones and stickers.
“The market will close on [election] day so we can go and vote. We will surely vote for the NLD because we believe in mother Suu for change,” said Aye Aye Thin, a fabric shop owner.
“We have other good candidates from other parties too. But we think they can’t do as much as Mother Suu. So we will vote only for her party for our future,” another shopkeeper told The Irrawaddy.
The local election sub-commission offices are crowded with locals looking for their names on voter lists and waiting to be issued with voter ID cards.
Even here, in the ostensibly neutral political confines of an election office, locals are willing to reveal their loyalties.
“We heard much news that there are some problems on the ballots, with the white star of the NLD’s logo turning yellow due to the paper,” said Aung Than, a resident of Maha Aung Myay Township. “No matter what happens, we will vote for the NLD.”