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The Awakening

Inside the Burmese Spring.

One evening recently in Rangoon, my friend Ko Ye (not his real name) arrived at the apartment where I was staying, brandishing the latest issue of the weekly newspaper he runs. It was, he announced with great fanfare, a landmark edition: For the first time ever, government censors had allowed him to run a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most prominent dissident, on the cover. The edition also included other previously banned topics: political analysis of U.S. relations with Burma and an article about Martin Luther King that contained the taboo phrase “human rights” in the headline. “And here,” said Ko Ye, jabbing another headline, “is the first time I’ve been able to write about the 2.2 trillion kyat budget deficit. This is real news!”

I first met Ko Ye ten years ago, and his tireless struggle to squeeze the truth past government censors has taught me much about life under a military dictatorship. If you want to understand Burma, he told me then, “you must look for what’s missing and learn how to find the truth in these absences.” The advice seemed counterintuitive, but it worked. In the curtailed reality of an authoritarian state, the truth of events is rarely out in the open for everyone to see; rather, it can be found in the sentences and stories excised by the censor’s pen or in the voices of people silenced by imprisonment or intimidation. I used to love listening to Ko Ye’s tales about sneaking elements of the truth past the censors by burying contraband facts deep within seemingly innocuous articles or constructing florid sentences with double meanings.

These days, however, Ko Ye has less need for such antics. Ever since the country’s longtime dictator, Than Shwe, stepped aside early last year, a remarkable thaw has appeared to be underway in Burma—and journalists have been among the prime beneficiaries. In June 2011, the government announced that magazines focusing on sports, technology, entertainment, health, and children’s topics no longer had to be submitted for censorship. Later, publications covering business, economics, law, or crime were also exempted. In October, U Tint Swe, head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, made a mind-boggling statement during a rare interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA). “Press censorship,” he said, “is nonexistent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors, and, as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future.” For the head of the censorship board to say this at all was astonishing, but for him to say it to a news organization like RFA, which is funded by the U.S. government and has been banned in Burma, was unthinkable. (Until recently, state media spouted melodramatic slogans about RFA and other external radio services running Burmese-language programs, calling them “killers in the airwaves” and accusing them of producing a “skyful of lies.”)

This media openness has extended to foreign journalists as well. Previously, to report on Burma, one almost always had to sneak into the country on a tourist visa, but recently a number of prominent foreign reporters have been granted official journalist visas. While watching the BBC news one afternoon in Rangoon, I saw a British correspondent reporting beneath the tagline “LIVE FROM NAYPYIDAW,” the once strictly off-limits capital. He had no particular news to report; the fact that he had been allowed in Naypyidaw for the first time was news enough to make the day’s top stories.

Indeed, from the moment I arrived in November, it was clear things were different. When I opened up my laptop to use the Internet, I noticed that the websites of exile Burmese media, which used to be blocked by firewalls, were now accessible; gone was the standard admonishment, displayed in a stern red font across my screen, “ACCESS DENIED.” For the first time, I changed my dollars in a real bank at a rate slightly higher than what was available on the black market—a sign that efforts are being made to adjust the ludicrous gap between the official rate (6 kyat to the dollar) and the black market rate (around 800 kyat to the dollar).

But by far the most visible difference was the reappearance of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest while her image and name were fastidiously erased from the public arena. To display or sell pictures of her was once to risk a jail sentence; her followers kept her photo tucked away in wallets or hung on the walls of family rooms where strangers did not enter. Now, a wide variety of posters depicting Suu Kyi are being openly sold on the streets of Rangoon.

“It feels like everyone in the city has just heaved a collective sigh of relief,” a friend in Rangoon told me. People are talking more freely; they no longer lower their voices when discussing politics; and one hears alarm-bell words—democracy, elections, dictatorship—bandied about with an uncharacteristic ease. My Burmese friends even spoke more openly on the telephone—once considered dangerous due to potential wiretaps.

In my experience, there are no people more justifiably distrustful of government initiatives than the Burmese, who have been betrayed many times over by their rulers. So I found this new insouciance utterly surprising, even a little alarming. And I was not alone in my discomfort: Many dissidents, activists, and academics outside the country are understandably wary. They suspect the generals who have long ruled Burma of trying to pull off an elaborate hoax to lure the West into lifting sanctions and investing in the country’s ailing economy. Is it really possible, they ask skeptically, that Burma is changing? But many of the Burmese citizens I spoke to during my recent trip no longer have any interest in this question. They are already persuaded that the answer is yes.

WHEN I FIRST VISITED Burma in the mid-’90s, it was a country that appeared to have been locked in time: a sad and secretive land, filled with untold stories and hidden histories. In 1962, just 14 years after Burma’s independence from Britain, a military dictator had seized control and sealed it off from the outside world, transforming a country rich in natural resources into one of the poorest in Asia. In 1988, after soldiers killed an estimated 3,000 demonstrators, the ruling generals were nominally replaced by a new military dictatorship that called itself, first, the State Law and Order Restoration Council and, later, the State Peace and Development Council.

Contrary to its name, the State Peace and Development Council was a brutal military junta with one of the worst human rights records in the world. To flush out guerrilla fighters from minority ethnic groups, Burmese soldiers razed whole villages, commandeered civilians as human minesweepers, and, in some regions, practiced systematic rape. Elsewhere in the country, a vast network of spies and informers operated, ensuring that anyone who did or said anything that might threaten the regime was swiftly punished.

In the wake of the quashing of the 1988 demonstrations, and after the military stepped up efforts against minority ethnic armies in the ’90s, many Burmese fled into exile. Members of this diaspora, joined by Western activists, have worked hard to raise awareness of Burma’s oppressive politics. They have successfully called for a tourism boycott and economic sanctions. But Burma’s generals have seemed impervious to these efforts. In 2007, the regime violently put down a widespread protest led by Buddhist monks. In May 2008, when Cyclone Nargis thundered across the country, killing an estimated 138,000 people, the junta was unable to provide adequate relief for the millions of people affected, but stubbornly refused, and even scuppered, assistance from other governments and the international humanitarian community. It is safe to say that few people expected this oppressive regime to ever instigate political reform.

It is even safer to say that few people thought it would happen this way. In the popular narrative of revolution and political transformation, dictators are expected to meet grim ends: They are brutalized by furious crowds or stand ridiculous and unrepentant against the bland backdrop of a court of law. They don’t, as a rule, shuffle quietly off center stage having set in place the mechanisms for reform. Yet this is exactly what appears to have happened in Burma.

In November 2010—with Shwe planning to retire—the generals held an election. It was, by all accounts, an unpromising event. Suu Kyi was still under house arrest (she was released a few days after the election took place), and her party refused to participate. The only party with the infrastructure to contest all 1,157 parliamentary seats was the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by politicians who had recently retired from the army so they could run as civilians. A popular joke had it that the only change the election would herald was a change of clothes: The ruling generals had done little more than exchange their uniforms for civilian attire in order to act out their roles as would-be politicians in a mock democracy.

Unsurprisingly, the USDP “won” the vast majority of seats, and, in January last year, a new parliament was convened in a brand new building in the capital. The unremarkable first session focused primarily on administrative matters, such as the selection of a president and two vice presidents. But soon, there were hints that change might be afoot. The new president, Thein Sein, gave an inaugural speech to parliament on March 30 that, while filled with the usual praise for the military, also referred to real problems that were not acknowledged by the previous regime. Among other topics, he spoke of “the hell of untold miseries” in ethnic areas, rights for workers, and the need to improve education and health care with the assistance of international nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations.

Then, during the second sitting of parliament, which began last August, events started to move in truly unexpected directions. The parliamentary sessions were televised, and local journalists were invited to sit in a press gallery. Numerous legislative proposals were debated, among them a labor organization bill that has since been enacted. This new law allows for the formation of trade unions (banned in Burma since 1962) and has been described by the International Labor Organization as “a massive move for the country.” Also in August, Suu Kyi met with Sein. As all earlier efforts at high-level dialogue had failed miserably, everyone was astounded when Suu Kyi declared she was happy with the meeting, even adding that she thought the president was “honest” and “sincere.”

For Ko Ye, and many others I spoke with, the key turning point came the following month, in September 2011, when the government put a stop to the construction of the Myitsone Dam. Backed by the Chinese, the Myitsone Dam was to be a major hydropower station situated in northern Burma. Despite Burma’s chronic power shortages, 90 percent of the electricity generated by the dam was slated for China, and an environmental impact assessment leaked last year cited all sorts of potential problems, including the possible endangerment of Burma’s major river, the Irrawaddy. As part of a “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign, Burmese intellectuals and celebrities spoke out against the dam. On September 30, Sein announced that, in accordance with “the will of the people,” he had suspended the project. Though Ko Ye is sure that broader, geopolitical factors influenced the decision, he acknowledges it as an unprecedented instance of the Burmese government responding to popular sentiment. “I was shocked when I heard the news,” he said. “Really, really shocked.”

As if to prove the point about Burma’s abysmal power shortages, my conversation with Ko Ye and another friend who had joined us was interrupted by one of Rangoon’s frequent power cuts. Looking out the window, we could see that electricity was down across the entire city; even the powerful floodlights that illuminated the massive, golden Shwedagon Pagoda were off. The result was a blackness so complete that we could barely see each other across the dining room table. Within a few minutes, we heard the roar of the building’s generators kicking into action, and the lights flickered back on. Just as our eyes had readjusted to the light, another power cut plunged us back into darkness. We all laughingly agreed that it was an apt metaphor for the Burmese condition: The political developments we had charted over the course of the evening had come so far, but they could just as easily disappear at the flick of a switch.

HOVERING OVER the flurry of reforms and the general air of optimism is the difficult question of why: Why did the generals, who had closely guarded their power for so long, suddenly decide to step back?

Analysts point to geopolitical and economic incentives as one likely possibility. Ostracized by the West for so many years, Burma turned to neighboring China for support. China provided Burma with a valuable defender in the U.N. Security Council and became a heavyweight political ally, but there has been a price to pay: Chinese investment in Burma has tended toward large-scale infrastructure projects such as dams, deep-sea ports, and natural gas pipelines—the products and proceeds of which go mostly to China. Burma may now be looking to open new markets and establish international relationships that will help counterbalance China’s overbearing presence. That strategy might be working: Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma on November 30, the first time in over half a century that Washington had dispatched such a high-level emissary to the country.

There may also be a more personal motivation for the generals. Burmese military rulers often meet with untimely or ignominious demises. The founder of the Burmese army, General Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi), was assassinated in 1947 just months before the independence from Britain he had fought so hard to achieve. General Ne Win, who seized power in 1962 and ruled Burma for more than a quarter of a century, saw his family charged with plotting to overthrow the government in 2002. Though the aged ruler had officially retired, his son-in-law and three grandsons were imprisoned, and he and his favorite daughter were placed under house arrest. Other top generals have had similarly miserable fates and few have been able to retire peacefully. The Burmese use the phrase wut leh deh—which means something akin to “what goes around comes around”—to explain this inescapable cycle of karmic retribution.

It is highly possible that Shwe is using liberalization as an exit strategy so that he, his family, and his close colleagues can survive with their wealth and freedom intact. This, too, may be working out according to plan: A campaign for a U.N. commission of inquiry into crimes committed by the junta that was gathering momentum last year has been put on the back burner since Clinton’s visit.

Perhaps because the generals’ motivations are hard to discern, not everyone I met in Rangoon was optimistic about the recent changes. “This is nothing more than a game,” a friend told me. “I can never think of this government as a new one. Make no mistake: It’s the same government as before. It has not changed. This so-called progress is just a trick, nothing more than mind games.”

Indeed, there are valid reasons for pessimism. Chief among them are the country’s large number of political prisoners. Last year, amnesties were granted to more than 310 political prisoners, but some 1,000 still remain in jail, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). The release of all remaining political prisoners would be a powerful demonstration of the government’s sincerity, and this was one of the key points emphasized by Clinton in her meeting with Sein. Yet a much-anticipated amnesty earlier this month proved disappointing when only 34 prisoners were released.

More potentially destabilizing is the problem of ethnic conflict in Burma. At the same time as positive developments have taken place in Naypyidaw, renewed fighting has broken out between the Burmese army and ethnic forces. In Shan state, a cease-fire signed with the Shan State Army-North in 1989 recently fell apart after more than 20 years of uneasy peace. Further north, in Kachin state, the Kachin Independence Army has resumed its struggle after 17 years of relative peace; the fierce fighting has already displaced some 30,000 civilians.

Even for those who believe that the changes in Burma are likely to proceed, there is no doubt that the situation is precarious. While Sein appears willing to cooperate with the opposition, he still must pacify the hard-line generals whose power would be threatened by change. Nay Win Maung, a passionate leader of civil society in Burma who died of a heart attack on January 1 of this year, maintained that recalcitrant generals were already plotting to derail the process. In a press interview before he died, he said, “Thein Sein means change, but it’s just as likely the situation ends in a military coup.”

All it takes is a simple paradigm shift to see the cup as half empty. At first glance, the relaxation in censorship rules appears categorically positive; yet many subjects still remain off limits. Similarly, there is much room for skepticism when looking at the new legislation promulgated by Sein. For instance, though the new law that allows protest is a welcome development, it may prove meaningless while the existing Emergency Provisions Act and State Protection Law enable authorities to arrest anyone perceived to be a threat to state security. Even Suu Kyi’s newfound freedom can be seen as a plot to neutralize her power. Though her party has decided to run in the upcoming election, only 48 seats will be available—which means that, even if her party wins every single seat, it will still be only a minority in parliament. And, if Suu Kyi herself wins a seat, it could become diplomatically challenging for Western governments to channel their policy toward Burma through a single member of parliament, who is just one among many.

And yet, despite all these serious caveats, I found it impossible to spend time in Rangoon and not be swept up by the city’s newfound energy. In anticipation of the possible lifting of sanctions and an expected gold rush of foreign investment, there is much talk of new business ventures. Tourist arrivals have increased by more than 25 percent during the past year, flights into Burma are full, and hotels that were once empty are now filled with guests. News reports tell of foreign companies and organizations scoping out possibilities. George Soros was in Burma over New Years and Standard Chartered Bank has expressed interest in reestablishing a branch in the country (during the British colonial period, the bank had a handsome art deco headquarters; it still stands, much dilapidated, in the heart of downtown Rangoon). There are also hints that Burmese exiles living abroad will start to come home; the government has extended invitations to them, and, in Burma-related circles, much gossip revolves around which high-profile dissidents are cutting deals with the government for favorable conditions and protection should they decide to return.

While I was in Rangoon, I met up with a young Burmese friend who was home on holiday from a university in Bangkok. “When I finish my studies, maybe I can come back here and get a job,” she said, visibly excited at the prospect. The country’s education system deteriorated so severely under decades of military rule that most young Burmese with the means to travel abroad for further education choose to do so; and many have ended up staying abroad, as the country’s decimated economy offers few sustainable career paths. “Before, my only chance to get a proper job in Burma might have been with the U.N. or one of the international NGOs,” she explained. “But, by the time I’ve finished my degree, maybe there will be possibilities in the corporate sector, too.”

This ability to talk about positive future outcomes is new to Burma. Throughout my years of traveling to the country to research articles and books, I have often returned home smothered by a cloud of depression. Indeed, when I finished writing my first book and sent the draft to my editor in London, she was perturbed by what she called its downbeat tone. “Is this what it’s really like?” she asked, urging me to come up with a happier conclusion. I managed to barely appease her by adding a halfway positive sentiment as an ending—but it was nothing like the one I might be able to write today. For the first time in decades, there is a sense of forward momentum in Burma and, rather astonishingly, a profound sense of hope.

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym for a journalist based in Bangkok. She is the author of Finding George Orwell In Burma and No Bad News For The King. This article appeared in the February 2, 2012 issue of the magazine.