Burma’s T-Shirt Trade: Suddenly, Aung San Suu Kyi is Everywhere

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Gabe Craven / Polaris

Freshly printed NLD tshirts for sale at a shop in Yangon on April 2, 2012.

She stands watch over tea shops and street stalls, dangles from rear-view mirrors. Not long ago, you could be jailed for having her portrait. Now, the Lady is ubiquitous.

On April 1, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy to a near-sweep in parliamentary by-elections hailed as a landmark for Burma. For 50 years, the country has languished under military rule, caught in the clutch of a small group of cadres.  For 20 of those years, Suu Kyi, daughter of an independence hero and the symbolic heart of the opposition, has been their foe. They kept her under house arrest,  effectively banned her party and prohibited people from carrying her picture. They wanted her to disappear. 

(PHOTOS: Freedom for Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi)

She didn’t. Suu Kyi, long a prisoner, is now a parliamentarian, a remarkable reversal that’s captured the world’s imagination and capped other, less visible, changes in the former British colony. In 2010, military junta handed power to a quasi-civilian government stocked with retired generals and aging apparatchiks. To the surprise of many, the new President, Thein Sein, has since taken steps toward reform, releasing some political prisoners, signing peace agreements and, for the first time, letting the Lady hold office. The military elite are far from relinquishing their hold on power. Fear and poverty persist. But in Rangoon, at least, people now wear the NLD’s colors, bright red and brilliant gold, proudly. And a cottage industry trading in Suu Kyi kitsch is in bloom.

It started as regular electioneering. People have kept portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi, secretly, for years. But in the weeks and months leading up to the by-election NLD campaigners crisscrossed the country wearing shirts, stickers and hats bearing the party’s fighting peacock logo. As their political momentum built, the look caught on. Soon, vendors were designing their own apparel, including what seems like an infinite variety of Suu Kyi shirts. Some show the dissident next to her father, Aung San, with pagodas or peacocks in the background. Most feature just the Lady herself, her face rendered in high contrast, a look that’s not unlike the iconic portrait of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, the original t-shirt icon.

(MORE: Burma: Amid the Revelry, Hope and Caution on New Era.)

This week, the dusty sidewalks of downtown Rangoon were awash with that image. Vendors squatted over tarps spread thick with Suu Kyi-branded merchandise, as well as standard market fare. At one makeshift stall, Suu Kyi mugs shared space with second-hand dishes, used telephones and two meat cleavers. On a nearby stretch of sidewalk, the trees were festooned with Suu Kyi shirts of every shade. Their sloping branches mixed with the smell of citrus fruit to give the scene the feel of a tropical, political Christmas. The celebrants were a mix of locals out for an afternoon stroll and tourists shopping for souvenirs.  “She’s my idol!” beamed Htun Ling Thu Ling, 24, who said he now owns several t-shirts. Jeff Hodson, an American who regularly visits Burma, bought one shirt for himself and another for his wife. “I’ve been coming here for more than a decade, so I’m thrilled to be able to do this,” he said. “And the price is right.”

The shirts sell for between $2 and $5 dollars, depending on the quality and the customer. For Kyaw Thu Aung, 21, the lithe man selling t-shirts and meat cleavers, it is the best opportunity he’s ever had. He was working as a casual laborer, hauling bricks and building roads, when he started noticing people selling Suu Kyi merchandise. “At first, I was too afraid to sell them, but I saw how many people were buying,” he said. He bought a stack of shirts and set up shop on the street, his wife and infant daughter at his side. Most of his customers are tourists. “I guess they like her,” he said. “And they want something to show friends when they go home.”

Indeed, the t-shirts, key chains and pictures will travel, taking with them Suu Kyi’s story, or, at very least, her likeness. She may well become the next Che,who, Michael Casey wrote in Che’s Afterlife, came to mean “anything to anyone and everything to everyone.” But that’s fine, for now. Burma needs the business.

PHOTOS: The Hope of Burma

Emily Rauhala is an Associate Editor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.