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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.

(Page 4 of 7)

All over Myanmar, but especially in the cities, young people are hard at work trying to rebuild social networks and give those networks purpose in a country where 50 years of dictatorship means they are starting from scratch: The military trashed the education system, banned independent unions and professional organizations, reined in charity groups, and ruled a fractured society with an iron fist.

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For example, in a classroom at the British Council (the British government's cultural arm), the English Conversation Club that meets each Sunday afternoon is an exercise in consciousness raising as much as a lesson in vocabulary and grammar.

On a recent Sunday, volunteer teacher Khin Soe Min led a discussion of a simple fictional story the group had read about a tree in danger of being cut down to make way for a mall, threatening the birds, insects, and squirrels that had made their homes in its branches.

Demonstrations, letters to the mayor, and an appeal to the courts blocked the building of the mall and saved the tree. "If you stay silent, nothing happens. If you want something, you have to do something," Mr. Khin Soe Min said. But that was only part of the message he had hoped to get across. The value of trees, and the importance of the natural environment, was another key element, he explained. "I don't just want people to protest. I want them to understand why they are demonstrating, because they have knowledge."

Knowledge is in desperately short supply in Myanmar, where schools are poorly staffed, universities have been repeatedly closed to choke off student unrest, many educated Burmese have gone into exile, and international isolation has starved students of learning material.

But since cyclone Nargis killed 130,000 people and ravaged the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, prompting a wave of volunteers to help with relief efforts, a plethora of nongovernmental organizations has sprung up to provide the sort of welfare and social services the government should provide but does not. Gradually, some of them have expanded their activities into the political realm of civic education.

Khin Zaw Win, for example, regularly leads groups of young trainers into the countryside where they typically base themselves at a Buddhist monastery and hold week-long courses for village leaders on leadership, management, social development, and any other issues they ask about.

"The questions are interesting," says Mr. Khin Zaw Win. "What is parliament? What is a member of parliament meant to do? What can we do about relations with China and the impact of their hydro projects on the environment? No question is too simple, and it's a pleasure to answer them. People are so hungry for this kind of thing."

"After decades of quiescence, we've found our people are quick to wake up ... and understand they have a part to play in the destiny of our country," says Aung San Suu Kyi.

Shaking citizens awake

Among those shaking his countrymen awake is Poe Phyu, a young lawyer who has made a name for himself helping peasant farmers defend their land rights – and has been sent to jail twice for his pains. He consults in a small, bare-walled, concrete-floored apartment furnished with just two desks and a few plastic chairs, overlooking a noisy alley in central Yangon. A few weather-beaten farmers wait patiently as he expounds (loudly – he is partly deaf as a result of prison beatings) on his new interest, labor unions.

Mr. Poe Phyu is helping the women at Tai Yi set up their union, but he admits that he is learning as he goes. "Burmese labor lawyers like me suffer from idea bankruptcy," he complains. "Most of us in this field have not learned international labor standards." So he is teaching himself: On the floor by his desk are piles of documents he found on the Internet – the Constitution of the "Labour Protect" trade union in South Africa, a piece of European Union legislation on works councils, guidelines from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on good industrial relations practice.


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