Burma Awakens: Newfound Freedoms Raise Hopes at Home and Abroad

By Thilo Thielke

For years, Burma's ruling junta has violently crushed its pro-democracy opponents. But now the pariah state is releasing political prisoners, tolerating open dissent and granting new freedoms to opposition politicians and foreign investors. Is this merely a tactical maneuver or a sign of genuine change?

Photo Gallery: A Sudden Turnaround in Burma Photos
AP

Andrew Rickards had to wait a long time for this day. The 48-year-old Englishman is wearing a white construction helmet and squinting into the sun as he stands on the sixth floor of a building site on the outskirts of Yangon, Burma. He gazes across the murky waters of the Yangon River, then toward the magnificent shimmering Shwedagon Pagoda and, finally, at the gaggle of adventurous investors standing around him who have traveled here from Singapore and Hong Kong for this on-site inspection. "The gold rush has started," Rickards says, "and soon there'll be no stopping it."

Within just a few years, they intend to erect a new city on this green meadow, a $100 million (€75 million) project with ferry terminals, an 18-hole golf course and 4,000 apartments. When the work is completed, up to 25,000 people will live here. The first 150 units have already been sold, Rickards says, all part of "a complete eight-story building."

One of the investors in the project is Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd., a company listed on the Singapore stock exchange, which has teamed up with Burmese partners. Rickards is the CEO of Yoma, which acquired the 55-hectare (136-acre) plot of land eight years ago. But since the business people didn't trust the generals of Burma's military junta, they opted to invest in a similar project in the Chinese port city of Dalian, instead. The work in Yangon didn't begin until six months ago. "We were skeptical for a long time," Rickards says, "but now we believe in the transition."

He's not the only one who is optimistic. Things are moving forward in the Southeast Asian country. Until recently, Burma only made the headlines with its bloody crackdowns against protesting Buddhist monks and the rigorous containment of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Now, though, there is such a huge rush to get into the country that Rickards can hardly get an airplane ticket to Yangon because everything is booked up. Just about every hotel room in the city is taken, and it now takes a long time to process visa applications. Rickards still lives in Hong Kong, but he's going to start living in Yangon soon.

A Sudden Relaxation of Tensions

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma this week. Before her arrival, US President Barack Obama personally spoke with Suu Kyi from Air Force One to ask if the Burmese opposition also supported Clinton's visit. The Burmese pro-democracy politician responded that she did, adding that she is planning to run as a candidate for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in upcoming parliamentary by-elections. Although only 48 out of 664 seats will be contested, it appears that the ice is starting to thaw between the party leader and the regime.

This is a small miracle. Up until a year ago, the Burmese generals -- who have ruled this country with an iron fist for decades -- nipped all opposition in the bud. Last year's parliamentary elections actually further cemented the generals' power, and election observers labeled them a farce, calling them an attempt by the country's rulers to give themselves a democratic veneer.

Suu Kyi's NLD boycotted the elections. When "the Lady" -- as the people call the daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San -- was released from her last stretch of house arrest in November 2010, this time after over seven years of confinement, there was hardly an international observer who believed that the regime had turned over a new leaf.

Blossoming Freedoms

One year later, it seems to be an entirely different story. The general population has been allowed access to previously blocked Internet services, such as Yahoo and Gmail, as well as to the BBC's website. On the streets of Yangon, vendors openly sell posters with portraits of Suu Kyi and, in October, the regime began releasing 6,300 prisoners, including 200 political prisoners -- among them even the country's most famous satirist, Zarganar.

Tint Swe, Burma's chief censor as the director of its Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, publicly stated that censorship of the media is no longer compatible with democratic practices. In August, Suu Kyi even met with Thein Sein, Burma's new president.

Finally, in late September, the government suspended a widely unpopular hydroelectric dam project. The $3.6 billion dam on the Irrawaddy River was originally to be financed by China. In return, Beijing would have been allowed to import 90 percent of the power. Burma's opposition was up in arms about the project, citing concerns of dramatic environmental damage and the forced relocation of 10,000 people. By suspending construction, the government has annoyed its partner in Beijing, whose money -- at least until now -- it has been unwilling to do without.

Now, virtually no topic appears to be taboo. Human rights violations are openly debated in parliament, and there are plans to allow trade unions. Likewise, the electoral law has been amended to allow the NLD to take part in elections. When representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently convened on the Indonesian island of Bali at a meeting attended by President Obama, they decided to allow Burma, the former pariah state, to chair the organization in 2014.

Indeed, there have also already been calls in Europe and the United States to ease sanctions against the regime. However, politicians in the United Kingdom, the former colonial power that ruled Burma until 1948, oppose such a move, preferring to maintain the export ban on Burmese gemstones along with travel restrictions for members of the government.

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel will travel to Burma in February to get a picture of the changes in the country. A briefing on Burma by the otherwise notoriously skeptical International Crisis Group was entitled "Major Reform Underway." And, following a trip to Burma in September, Derek Mitchell, the US special envoy to Burma, spoke of hopes for "genuine" reforms and changes.

Increased Toleration of the Opposition

Are these changes the "impact of the Arab Spring on Southeast Asia," as Myo Yan Naung Thein suggests? The 37-year-old stood in the midst of a crowd that recently gathered around Suu Kyi. He was wearing a longyi, a traditional wrap-around skirt-like garment widely worn by Burmese men, and a plain beige shirt.

When he was 21, Naung Thein led student protests against the military regime, for which he was subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison. After participating in 2007's "Saffron Revolution," he spent an additional two years in one of the country's prisons that are notorious for torture. One year ago, the Lady appointed him director of the Bayda Institute, which operates boarding schools that the NLD has opened for the next generation of political activists. Three of these institutes already exist: in Yangon, Mandalay and in the eastern state of Shan. Over 200 schoolchildren are educated there and schooled in politics. The military has yet to intervene. "Until recently, this would have also been unthinkable," Naung Thein, say.

The school in Yangon has just celebrated its first anniversary, which Suu Kyi attended in person. These days, there's a festive atmosphere wherever the 66-year-old appears. Posters with her portrait and pictures of her father were held up high, and she was handed bouquets of flowers. Everyone wanted to touch this political celebrity and Suu Kyi, who has spent so many years in isolation, enjoyed immersing herself in the crowd. "We are taking the risk of working together with the government," she shouted, "but we are taking this risk for the people of this country." The crowd cheered and released balloons into the air.

Turning Away from China and Toward the West

"People sense that we have reached a turning point," Naung Thein says. In his view, this can primarily be attributed to the determination of Suu Kyi, who has always remained true to her convictions in her conflict with the regime.

It is also possible, he suggests, that the government wants to free itself from China's clutches. Naung Thein sees the large neighbor as a "power that colonializes us," and he contends that the city of Mandalay, with its over 1 million inhabitants, is "practically a Chinese enclave." Indeed, he accuses the Chinese of exploiting the country's natural resources and controlling all trade in the sector. As he sees it, it is very possible that the government now takes a similar view: "If Burma establishes closer ties to the West and tries to free itself from its dependence on China, the country will also be forced to democratize."

Of course, Naung Thein has gone through too much to blindly trust the country's rulers. "Until now, the generals have always only acted to hold onto power," he says, noting the more than 1,700 political prisoners are still being held in Burmese prisons. And yet, he adds, the government will find it difficult to "close the door again that they have now opened."

Enormous Potential

In the Savoy, a small hotel managed by Germans in Yangon, Dutchman Erik Schoevers is ending his business day in style. He has ordered tuna carpaccio, Australian tenderloin steak with mustard sauce and South African wine. The businessman has been active in Burma for several years. He runs a consulting firm with Burmese partners, and his day has been very successful.

"After having ignored the country for years, the multinational concerns are now showing an interest in Burma," he says, adding that this transition reminds him of the opening of communist Vietnam 25 years ago.

"The potential in Myanmar is enormous," says Schoevers says. "The country has 54 million inhabitants, is larger than Thailand, attractive for tourists with its friendly people and has natural resources."

People just have to hurry, he says. "Now, nobody wants to be the last one."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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