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Cover Story

Is Myanmar about to rejoin the world?

One of the three most closed and isolated countries in the world is opening up. The long-repressed Burmese say it's unbelievable - but they want to believe in a new Myanmar.

By our correspondent in Yangon, who could not be identified for security reasons. / April 29, 2012

Supporters of the National League of Democracy line the streets as they wait for the arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi on her visit to the village of Wah Thin Kha, Myanmar, March 31. This is the cover story in the April 30 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

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Yangon, Myanmar

Soon after dawn one recent morning, before the full force of Myanmar's oppressive heat had gathered, a slim young woman in a white blouse and a long green wrap-around skirt stood outside a factory gate on a tree-lined, potholed avenue on the outskirts of Yangon and surveyed the crowd of several hundred women like her squatting or sitting in the dust at her feet.

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Moe Wai was doing something that had been unthinkable since the military seized power in a coup a half century ago in what was then called Burma (the military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989); she was organizing an independent trade union.

She spoke simply to the women and girls who listened silently, all workers at Tai Yi, a ­Taiwanese-owned footwear manufacturer where they earn about $3.50 a day, including overtime. "An organization would be more effective than individuals when it comes to making our demands," she explained.

Little more than a year ago, that kind of talk might have earned Ms. Moe Wai a long jail sentence. Today, however, the right to organize a union is enshrined in a new labor law, one of a slew of liberalizing reforms that Myanmar's nominally civilian government has enacted or planned since it took office in March 2011.

The new government, dominated by President Thein Sein and other former generals, has freed several hundred political prisoners (though many are still behind bars), relaxed censorship (though not abolished it), and held parliamentary by-elections earlier this month that pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi swept in a landslide victory.

Where these changes are leading, and how lasting they will be, nobody is quite sure. Many, like Dhin Dhin Mar who cuts leather at Tai Yi, are reserving judgment. "We'll see how much use this union is when we hear what's happened to our wages," she says.

But there is a palpable mood of hope in Yangon as people allow themselves to dream that their country may at last be on a path out of the fearful, downtrodden poverty to which decades of harsh and incompetent military rule have condemned it.

"The fear factor is gone," says Thiha Saw, a crusading newspaper editor. "People are getting bolder and bolder. We call ourselves 'Brave New Burma.' "

This is no Arab Spring

Do not mistake Myanmar's emergence from its repressive cocoon for an Asian variant of the Arab Spring. The citizenry may have yearned for greater freedom, but the Army had little difficulty in suppressing two outbursts of popular anger – a student uprising in 1988 and the so-called Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks in 2007.

Today's transition to democracy – if that is what it turns out to be – is happening on the military's own carefully planned terms, following a blueprint drawn up 10 years ago.

"The [civilian] government itself is an outcome of goodwill of Tatmadaw," the official daily New Light of Myanmar recently reminded its readers, using the Burmese word for the Army.

Just why the military decided to withdraw from the day-to-day running of the country is a question that has scholars and observers scratching their heads. Perhaps the generals realized how far behind its neighbors Myanmar had fallen economically; maybe they feared the country's heavy dependence on China; possibly they concluded they could lead their nation no further up a political and economic dead-end street. In any event, they wanted broader international acceptance and an end to US and other Western economic sanctions; only a move toward democracy would unlock that door.

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