Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar's new dawn

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am

Aung San Suu Kyi takes a deep breath and pauses to consider her words. Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize laureate is, after all, attempting to answer what has suddenly become a burning question in the minds of her countrymen: is Myanmar really changing? Is it really emerging from the darkness of a military dictatorship to a new dawn of openness and freedom?

Speaking slowly, as if to ensure no single is word is lost, she says: 'I think we can say we are looking at the opening to the road of democracy.'

Her comments, at a celebration last week to mark a year since her release from house arrest, came after weeks of positive signals from Myanmar's nominally civilian new government.

Soon after, another frantic burst of activity saw US President Barack Obama phone Suu Kyi to confirm that his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, would be visiting on December 1. The highest-level US mission to Myanmar in more than 50 years, Clinton's visit will bring the continuing Western sanctions sharply into focus and highlight the strategic shifts as Myanmar's ruling elites lessen their dependency on neighbouring China.

Then came the decision of Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy (NLD) to register and stand in upcoming by-elections. It is a move that represents the end of an era, on the one hand signaling her intention to participate in the nation's electoral changes while at the same she is relinquishing her claim to power after the elections in 1990 that were won by an NLD landslide but rejected by the military junta.

Not surprisingly, ordinary Myanmese are optimistic, yet deeply cautious. Is their nation really coming in from the cold?

Talking to dozens of people in Yangon and the surrounding countryside over the past week, it is clear that the caution runs deep, reflecting the fact that their long night has been darkest just before this apparent dawn. In 2007, troops fired on protesters on the streets of Yangon, with Buddhist monks among the dead, a step seen domestically as a tragic new low for a hated regime. Then in 2008 came the devastation of Cyclone Nargis. The junta initially refused offers of international aid and arrested local aid workers as they headed to the worst-hit parts of the Irrawaddy delta.

One of the more optimistic is Soe Myint, a bookseller in the cramped streets of downtown Yangon. His shop is dominated by a large photograph of Suu Kyi's late father, General Aung San, the nation's long-revered independence hero. The photo is faded and moth-eaten but the screws on the frame are new.

'I only put it up last week,' he said. 'Before, the police and the military would have seen it from the street and given me trouble. Now, I think I'll be OK. By and by, things will get better: the trend is set now.'

Along with dusty colonial-era tomes and tatty copies of National Geographic from the 1960s, the shelves of his store are now stacked with bright new samizdat copies of the kind of books on Myanmar that Soe Myint would have once had to sell under the counter. Suu Kyi's own Freedom of Fear is not among them. 'I'm getting more printed up,' Soe Myint says, bending double with laughter. 'They've sold out. Can you believe it?'

In the streets around, pavement stalls sell posters of General Aung San and his daughter. A local travel agency accountant, Ohn Kyaw, hurries past the stand on his way to his office. 'I don't even want to be seen looking at them,' he explains, safely around the corner. 'It just has to be a trap. I want to believe everything I see about the easing of censorship, the freeing up of the internet and so on, but I still can't. Not yet.'

A Burmese-Chinese jade trader in the city's main market talks of grass roots changes beyond the more high-profile moves, such as the government's decision to hold long-delayed national re-conciliation talks with Suu Kyi, and the release of some political prisoners.

'I finally got my national identification papers,' said Tin Tin, 47, over the counter of his market stall. 'I thought that would never happen, but the most amazing thing is that I didn't have to bribe anyone. The government officials at the low levels are insisting that is a thing of the past. I'm hearing lots of talk that civil service pay and pensions are finally being improved to stop all the petty back-handers. If so, that is real change.'

Driving through the leafy low-slung city and it is clear, too, that the large red billboards that until recently exhorted the citizenry to 'crush plots and spies' and guard against 'stooges' have disappeared. But the police stations still carry the message 'May I help You', cryptically written as a statement, not a question. And the police themselves, armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, can still be spotted in the shade of trees at strategic points around the city.

More than an hour out of the city is the riverside temple town of Kyauktan. Here, in a spartan teak monastery, the locally revered monk Pynya Wuntha, 85, sits in a planter's chair and talks of an optimism he thought he would never see. 'The local people tell me their lives are getting better, that the situation is easing and the grip of the soldiers and police is lighter. Each night I listen to the BBC and VOA [Voice of America]. They tell me things are getting better, too. I am old now but I am happy about this. I now stay up to 11 every night to listen.'

The monk knows all too well about the excesses of the junta. Kyauktan was hit hard during Nargis and hundreds of local farmers took shelter in his monastery. Soldiers ordered them back to their land, even though their simple wood and reed houses had been washed away. The monastery continued to harbour them for weeks.

The guarded optimism extends to Yangon's tiny foreign community. A range of envoys believe change may be complex and slow, but is coming. 'The generals know they can't go back. It is now a question of keeping dragging them forward,' one veteran Asian envoy in Yangon said. Some say there is no single reason for the recent steps taken by the new president, the former general Thein Sein, but rather a raft of pressures, including the lingering impact of sanctions, discreet but firm pressure from Myanmar's peers in the Association of South East Asian Nations and the ever-present threat of Arab Spring-style domestic turbulence.

Other foreigners, too, are making their presence felt. After years of struggle, Yangon's hotels are packed, including the usually empty opulent spaces of the Strand, one of the most exclusive hotels in Southeast Asia. Last week it had retired Stanford University alumni crowding its cocktail bar, buoyed by recent remarks from Suu Kyi urging Americans to visit Myanmar again.

European and American travellers are arriving in greater numbers, while Thai, Singaporean, South Korean and Japanese businessmen are taking a fresh look at Myanmar's hidebound economy. Mainland Chinese business travellers said they were bracing for more regional and international competition, particularly if an end to sanctions eased the commercial climate in a poverty-stricken but resource-rich nation.

Again, no one is underestimating the challenges. To fly in from Bangkok is to peel back the decades. Battered 1970s and 1980s Japanese cars ply pot-holed streets. Mobile phones cost more than US$500 and credit cards are virtually useless. The internet has been freed up but the available bandwidth is so narrow that it can at times be agonisingly slow.

The broader domestic challenges were all too apparent as Suu Kyi spoke, flanked by the old men who are the survivors of two decades of bitter struggle. Her NLD headquarters is a tin-roofed, concrete-floored shack, a reminder that the party must entirely re-build a shattered grass-roots network if it is to play a formal political role from the inside. Suu Kyi acknowledges these difficulties, talking of this network as well as the continuing struggle for the rule of law and the release of a further 591 political prisoners as priorities in the months ahead. She has been a moral leader in recent years: she now must prove a strategic political one, too.

Other darker challenges lay literally right outside the entrance. As Suu Kyi, her supporters, journalists and diplomats filed out of the door, the tea-shop across the road burst into life. Heavy-set men with cameras and clip boards stood up and went to work, recording departures on behalf of a still omnipresent military intelligence apparatus. It was a stark reminder that real change will take time.