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Myanmar house of fear becomes house of hope

Ian Williams / NBC News

The headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Yangoon, Myanmar was teeming with people coming and going on Tuesday.

YANGON, Myanmar –  A dilapidated  three-story house on Yangon's busy Shwe Gone Dine Road has become the unlikely focus of celebration and hope over the last few days.

It used to be a place of fear.

The house is the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which swept most of the votes in Sunday's by-election.

There were wild scenes here as thousands gathered after the polls closed Sunday and reports began to emerge about the scale of the victory – the NLD won 43 out of the 44 seats in parliament they contested. Suu Kyi, the country’s longtime democracy icon who won one of the parliamentary seats, gave a speech from the gate of the NLD’s headquarters Monday. She proclaimed the election a triumph for the people and the start of “a new era” for the long-repressed country.

Suu Kyi hails 'triumph of the people' after Myanmar election win

When I visited the house on Tuesday, the cramped and usually gloomy reception area was packed with well-wishers. On the sidewalk outside, stalls selling t-shirts, caps and bandannas were doing a brisk trade.

Yet there was a time not so long ago when visiting here could be a nerve-racking experience.

Ian Williams / NBC News

The tea house opposite the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar where military intelligence used to monitor the comings and goings at pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party.

Close call
Across the road sits a small tea shop that was always packed with military intelligence officers who would photograph people coming and going from the house. They would note car registrations and follow visitors in their beat-up white Toyotas when they left.

A few years ago, during a time when Suu Kyi was briefly at liberty (she was under house arrest for about 15 years) I did a TV interview with her at the party headquarters, only to be followed to the airport by one of those beat-up Toyotas. I was detained with my cameraman and taken to a small room where military intelligence officers methodically went through our luggage, confiscating several video tapes.

Eventually, minutes before our flight, they told us to go. We slipped on our shoes, which in accordance with Buddhist tradition, had been left outside the room.

My cameraman appeared to be walking awkwardly toward the plane. It was only after we had boarded the plane and were well on our way to Thailand that he produced from his left sneaker the key tape from the interview.

It had sat there tucked in his shoe outside the room throughout our brief detention.

Of course, after we broadcast the interview, I was black-listed from entering Myanmar for about a decade.

Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to crowds of cheering supporters saying she hoped it would be a new beginning for the country. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

A new era
Among journalists there are many similar stories about the NLD headquarters. Some of the funnier ones focus on the sometimes extreme lengths reporters would go to disguise themselves from the prying cameras of the spooks, who in turn would go to absurd lengths to creep up on the reporters with their large and unwieldy cameras. They sometimes resembled a grotesque cross between George Orwell and the Keystone Cops.

There was, however, nothing funny about them to those who risked their lives working for the NLD and whose latest and usually disheartening briefings we went to hear.

How things have changed.

On Monday, television crews were traipsing through the military intelligence’s tea shop to climb a hill behind it in order to get a better shot of the NLD house. It seemed like the ultimate indignity for the men whose word has been law here for decades.

But they haven't completely abandoned their old haunt. As we came back down the hill and around the back of the tea shop we were confronted by an officious-looking man with a dog-eared notebook demanding to know our names.

We ignored him and left.

As our van pulled away I couldn't help but look behind, searching for the beat-up Toyota on our tail.

It was nowhere to be seen, which might sound trivial against the background of the weekend's historic elections, but in its own way it's an enormous sign of change.

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