By Peter Ford/Staff Writer
In less than two years, Myanmar (Burma) has gone from being a dictatorial hermit country, isolated from the rest of the world by a harshly oppressive military regime, to a country that welcomed President Obama in November to hear him praise its "remarkable journey" toward democracy.
"So much change has happened so unexpectedly," says Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who is now working as a community organizer. "It is quite unbelievable."
Hope was already beginning to flicker a year ago. A new civilian government – albeit made up of former generals who had swapped their uniforms for sarongs – had begun to relax political controls and make overtures to Western governments. Today, those hopes burn more brightly, fed by 12 months of encouraging progress on both the economic and the political fronts.
Key were parliamentary by-elections in April, in which Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to run at the head of her National League for Democracy. The NLD swept the board, winning 43 of the 44 races it contested. Perhaps more surprising, the Army swallowed the humiliation of its pet Union Solidarity and Development Party, which still has a large parliamentary majority, and accepted the victory of the woman it had held under house arrest for the better part of two decades.
Before and after the elections, the government released political prisoners; some 300 remain behind bars, according to human rights groups, but that compares with thousands who languished in fearsome jails during military rule.
In August the authorities abandoned the last vestiges of press censorship, and Myanmar newspapers are no longer required to submit articles to government censors for approval before publication.
That freedom extends, officially, to the street: A law passed in July allows public protests and demonstrations. But near the end of November, riot police stormed an encampment where local residents and environmentalists had staged a three-month sit-in against a copper mining project run by the military and a Chinese partner company. The protesters charged that some mining land had been unlawfully confiscated – a common complaint in a country where military officers and their business cronies have traditionally taken what they wanted of Myanmar's legendary timber and mineral reserves.
In the moldering, decrepit former colonial capital, Yangon, a few shoots of modernity are sprouting. ATMs, previously unheard-of, can be found in some banks, and soft-drink vendors can now pull a can of Coke from their iceboxes. When the United States lifted economic sanctions in September, Coca-Cola was quick to rush into a market in which it hadn't sold its beverages for 60 years.
The most striking change, says David Steinberg – the doyen of US Myanmar scholars who has been visiting the country for decades – is that "people talk frankly to you; they don't whisper to you in private anymore.... There is an openness I have not seen since 1962," when a hard-line military coup plunged Burma, as the country was then known, into a half century of obscurantism, violence, and poverty.
Some violence has not gone away. Though the government has signed truces with most of the ethnic minority armed rebel groups that have been waging war for decades, the Kachin fighters have not put down their guns. And in the northwest, recent ethnic clashes between Buddhists and the traditionally scorned Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State – displacing tens of thousands of Rohingyas – have turned particularly ugly.
The overall picture is not entirely rosy: For the time being the mood among even the most hopeful citizens is one of cautious optimism.
Julie Masis contributed reporting from Myanmar.