/ 25 November 2011

‘Maybe’ times are a-changin’ in Burma

A year ago it was a banned symbol of resistance. Now Burma’s most famous face is becoming ubiquitous in the capital: on trinkets, posters and newspaper front pages, the serene features of Aung San Suu Kyi are hard to avoid. And so is the impression that Burma is on the edge of something quite unexpected and unusual in these parts: change.

After more than two decades of rule that has been by turns obstinate, cruel and surreal, the generals are showing tentative signs of reform.

Labour unions have been granted the right to strike. Some political prisoners have been released. An unpopular dam project on the Irrawaddy River was suspended, the authorities preferring to annoy their Chinese paymasters rather than furious locals.

But is Burma about to undergo a proper thaw after years of frosty diplomacy — or is it just a play by the generals to improve international relations at a time when they are short of cash and intimidated by the rise of their mighty northern neighbour?

Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s international development secretary and the first Cabinet minister from a European Union country to visit in decades, told journalists this week that the country was “making clear and immutable progress”.

“Aung San Suu Kyi is an inspiration and a personal hero to many across the world. It is an immense honour to have met her — As I saw today on the visit we made to a school in Rangoon, she represents the hopes and dreams of Burma’s people,” said Mitchell.

“I am making this unprecedented visit because there are tentative — but real — signs of progress in Burma, which I welcome. But my message is clear: we need urgent further progress. I call upon the Burmese government to release all political prisoners, including Min Ko Naing, immediately, to ensure the coming by-elections are free and fair and to take steps to end the conflict on Burma’s borders and strengthen respect for human rights and the rule of law. These actions would signal the way for a fundamental shift in the relationship between Burma and Britain.”

Hundreds of people are still detained by the authorities, but there have been signs of an imminent release of prisoners in recent days. Labour Minister Aung Kyi said the move would come “in the near future”. Earlier this week Suu Kyi, who is considering a return to the political fray, expressed cautious hope about recent progress.

Reform hopes have centred on the figure of Thein Sein, president since March, a moderate who consented to a meeting with Suu Kyi in August. Burmese in the capital generally speak well of a president who many believe, did not want the job, seeing him as a figure of compromise and relative honesty, with an aim of modernising his moribund country. The president speaks of wanting to move Burma towards a “disciplined, flourishing democracy”.

U Win Tin, a founding member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said: “There are really two governments in this country: the government of Thein Sein and then the military.” He pointed to Thein Sein’s much-applauded speeches to Parliament promising “clean government” and peace with ethnic armed groups, while the military waged war against ethnic rebel groups.

However, Thein Sein’s military proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is said to have rigged last year’s election and took up the majority of seats in the country’s two national parliaments.

Still, legislative reforms have been passed and include a labour organisation Bill that gives the Burmese the right to strike and unionise for the first time since the 1960s.

The president has made overtures to the West and reform-minded elites, promising human rights progress and market-oriented economics. Changes have included an easing of censorship, reform of electoral laws, privatisation and calls for exiles to return.

Part of the leadership’s motivation for change could be economic. Sanctions and international isolation left Burma solely in the orbit of China, especially with regard to loans.

“We need new friends,” said Burmese economist Khin Maung Nyo. “We have two problems: a lack of funds and also the government should manage funds effectively and wisely.”

Burma’s debt has been growing fast and its currency is unstable. “Officially $1 is equal to six kyat, but in practice it’s 800 or 900 kyat to the dollar,” said Khin Maung Nyo. Some allege this is a part of a broader scam to hide revenues.

The government spends about 23% of GDP on the military, yet only 1% on education and 1% on health, causing what Paul Whittingham, head of the Burma section of the department for international development, describes as a “crisis in healthcare”.

Another legislative move has involved a re-examination of laws for protest. Four years ago protests led by Burmese monks were brutally crushed. Parliament is now drafting laws that allow protesters to “process” peacefully if they remain silent. Slogans may be carried only if pre-approved.

Mindful of the startling change in the Arab world, the generals are seriously concerned about the possibility of a popular revolt. This week a group of monks in Mandalay persisted with a public rally to demand prisoner releases.

More dramatic still was the outcome from a grassroots movement against the Myitsone dam being built by the Chinese on the Irrawaddy. The dam would have flooded an area the size of Singapore and destroyed fisheries and infrastructure downriver. Ninety percent of the energy generated was to go to China. Locals revolted, with bomb attacks and “Save the Irrawaddy” messages plastered on walls.

On the streets of Rangoon the people wait for change. “We hope things are moving, slow and steady,” said one wistful teacher. “Maybe.” —