Myanmar Spring at Last?
Hillary Clinton was the headliner during an unprecedented charm offensive that could mark the first steps for Myanmar in leaving its isolated past behind and rejoining the global community. After over a half century as a recluse, and ruled by a brutal military regime, a new president has launched bold reforms and the world seems ready to embrace a rebooted Burma
By Ron Gluckman /in Yangon, and Bagan, Burma/Myanmar
IS MYANMAR EMERGING FROM THE SO-CALLED AXIS OF EVIL into the global community after decades of isolation? Is one of the last Cold War stalwarts moving away from the patronage of China, and into a warmer embrace of the United States? Has Burma Spring suddenly erupted in this long-slumbering Southeast Asian giant, now called Myanmar, or is it a grand sham to woo the West to ease sanctions that have bankrupted this reclusive state?
These are the questions being asked as Hillary Clinton arrived this week in a giddy country bubbling with change, and hope. The first American Secretary of State to visit in over a half century, Clinton was on a whirlwind tour that included talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and surprising new President Thein Sein. Since taking power earlier this year in what most felt would merely be a change of uniform for the brutal military regime that ran this country into the ground for decades, he has startled diehard democracy advocates while rankling hardliners with radical reforms: legalizing unions and public protest; loosening shackles on the state press; and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
Most prominent has been the release of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Suu Kyi, held under house arrest for much of the last two decades. But security experts and many local democracy advocates say the boldest move was a break with China, which could thrust Myanmar into the new embrace of America and the West.
On September 30, President Thein Sein halted the controversial $3.6 billion Myitsone dam. Funded by China, which planned to tap 90 percent of the power, the project had been vehemently opposed by local residents and an unusually vocal lobby. “This was the first time we criticized a public project so vigorously, and the government stepped down,” said Dr Than Htut Aung, Chairman of Eleven Media Group, and an outspoken leader of the dam opposition. “This was the first time the government has acknowledged public opinion. It represents a revolutionary change in the country.”
Sean Turnell, professor in economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, and a respected analyst of Myanmar affairs, called the decision a huge rebuke of the country’s longstanding dependency upon China, its major source of trade and aid, as western nations ramped up sanctions in recent years. China poured in over $8 billion in investment in the year that ended in March, over four times the figure from the previous year, according to local media reports. Yet dissatisfaction with China has been rampant. “All they do is take our minerals and resources,” says a teacher in Yangon. “China doesn’t help us grow, or invest in our development. That’s why we need to turn more to countries like America.”
Turnell confirmed widespread concern over Chinese investments. “But, clearly there's a political calculation too - a playing of the 'China card' with respect to Burma's international relations (with the US and others).” He added that the surprising government turnaround also offered encouragement to opposition voices in what is fast becoming a fledgling free society. “I think this decision was the first real marker of serious intent - that what is going on in Burma is not just simply nice words.”
Local dissidents and diplomats generally agree. “The changes haven’t just been startling, they’ve been revolutionary,” says a western diplomat in Yangon. “And they have been constant. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up, with new reforms announced almost every day. There is still a lot to be done, but Myanmar has gone from darkness to a kind of sunrise, practically overnight.”
But are reforms real or just shams designed to lure the rest of the world into relaxing sanctions? That’s the worry of many analysts overseas, but inside this formerly dark hole of Asia, the mood is celebratory, and bright. “We’ve suffered from years and years of repressive rule,” says Dr. Muang Muang Lay, a leader of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “Really, the feeling is like we are on the runway, nearing takeoff. There is no reverse gear, now.”
Even Suu Kyi, who previously spurred any compromise with the regime that imprisoned her, has signaled confidence. After rare meetings with the president, she announced that she could work with him to move Myanmar forward. At the same time, the state-run media stopped spewing out its hate stories about Suu Kyi. In late November, her National League for Democracy decided to re-register as a party, with the intention of contesting by-elections to be held within months. Senior party leaders told Newsweek she would run for parliament. She is widely expected to challenge for the presidency in the 2015 general election.
“It’s Burma rebooted,” says U Tin Oo, second in command at the NLD, and an army general turned opposition stalwart who has been at Suu Kyi’s side for decades. Nearly 85-years of age, he spent 14 years imprisoned along with her, always dreaming of such a turnaround. “Everything is happening with a speed we couldn’t even foresee,” he said in the NLD office, itself totally transformed by the dramatic events of recent months. Once a gloomy building watched by photo-snapping goons in sun-glasses, it’s become a bee-hive of activity, and commerce. Party volunteers register legions of young new members rejoining the formerly outlawed NLD. Others teach health and nutrition classes. Huge posters of Suu Kyi and her father, national hero Aung San cover the walls, while freshly minted party literature, Suu Kyi DVDs and buttons are sold from several tables. “It’s completely revolutionary,” U Tin Oo chuckles.
Another big difference is the ramped up media coverage. Among the world’s most restrictive countries, Myanmar typically vets all visa applications, denying access to reporters. In the weeks leading up to Clinton’s visit, officials began giving interviews to certain invited media, in a clear charm offensive. “You can go anywhere you want now, talk to anyone you want,” a government official told this reporter, a complete turnaround from just a year ago, when my visa was abruptly cancelled when I tried to come to interview Suu Kyi soon after her release. “Go, talk to her,” he added. “Myanmar is open now. This is a new time.”
Where it goes next is anyone’s guess. While hopes are certainly high, as Hillary-mania swept Yangon this week, most in Myanmar realize it will take years to remove sanctions and restore international links, not to mention rebuild a civil society that has operated largely as a police state for decades. Another big concern is ethnic fighting, which recently flared up in the restive northern border areas. A dozen ethnic groups have battled the government, some with large rebel armies, many fighting since independence from the British in 1948. Last month, President Thein Sein re-launched peace talks with many of the groups.
“He’s really moving things forward on so many fronts at once, it’s astonishing,” says another western diplomat who regularly comes for meetings in Myanmar, including several with both the president and Sui Kyi. “He’s stuck his neck out so far (with the military) that they won’t even need to chop it off. If he doesn’t get results and recognition from the West, it will fall off.”
Indeed, while most democracy advocates and business people realize reforms will bring slow change, much of the foreign community, including aid workers, hope for speedy action. “It’s been enough stick for a long time,” says a member of the diplomatic corps. “The West really has to respond with some carrots, and big ones.” Adds an American aid worker whose organization is stymied from doing much in Myanmar because of existing sanctions: “Myanmar really needs our help. They need our experience and they need financing, and they need it now.”
One American official, who requested anonymity, told Newsweek to expect major announcements soon. “The decisions have already been made,” he said. “That’s why Obama decided to send in Clinton. Discussions have been going on for months, ever since Mitchell began making his visits.” Derek Mitchell, a special American envoy, made several visits over three months, with his last trip coming right before a summit of Asian and world leaders in Bali last month.
President Obama called opposition leader Suu Kyi before announcing the visit by Clinton. Many believe secret negotiations have been ongoing for some time. Even the most optimistic don’t think sanctions will be lifted immediately, since they are the trump cards held by Suu Kyi to push further change. Yet there is a sliding scale of responses America can choose to nurture this fledgling democratic movement. Freeing aid groups to operate in Myanmar will likely to be first on the agenda, but local businessmen and overseas investors yearn for the lifting of restrictions that stifle commerce. Myanmar’s economy has collapsed, leaving its 62 million people among Asia’s poorest, earning an average of $2.20 per day.
Most banks are not allowed to handle transactions involving Myanmar, and credit cards generally cannot be used in the country. The effects of the sanctions are most glaringly seen by visitors who ride a fleet of battered taxis. Without car dealers, most vehicles are second-hand heaps sold overseas for scrap. “Things have been getting a little better since the reforms started,” says U Moe Kyaw, head of MMRD, the country’s largest independent research firm. “Before these junk cars cost $30,000. Now, they have dropped to $10,000.”
From top to bottom in Myanmar these days, though, it’s impossible not to smell the intoxicating fragrance of opportunity. All flights into the country are booked, not only by surging numbers of tourists, but also investors eager for an early piece of what analysts say would be a boom economy, once sanctions are lifted. “We aren’t just ready to go, but itching to do so, whenever things change, and everyone expects that within months, if not weeks,” said one Bangkok executive, who noted that many hotel chains already have sites staked out.
After all the long years in opposition, and behind bars, U Tin Oo is optimistic. “We have a lot to do, but of course we feel a little happy. We can finally work without fear,” says the old warrior. “Aung San Suu Kyi feels she can work with this president. The situation has really changed.
“I’m cautiously, cautiously optimistic. This is all just a slight flicker of democracy. But through that flicker, we hope to build and increase it a little, and a little more to make democracy burn brightly in Burma.”
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living and working in Asia since 1991, and visiting Myanmar since the mid-1990s. He returned in November-December 2011 for Newsweek Magazine, which ran a shorter version of this story on December 5, 2011. This is the original, writer's version of the story.
All words and pictures copyright RON GLUCKMAN