Tentative Steps: Navigating Burma's Fragile Transition

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Burma is slowly transitioning from military dictatorship, but the old elite still pulls the strings. As the country moves towards more societal freedoms, they increasingly find themselves confronted with victims of the old regime.

When Aung San Suu Kyi met the new president of Burma for the first time after her release, her smile, the smile of an icon, had disappeared. She looked stern and unrelenting as she stood next to President Thein Sein. She kept him at arm's length. Each centimeter of distance seemed precious. Nevertheless, she stood before the camera with a man who had built his career under the old regime. That was in August 2011.

In June of this year, Aung San Suu Kyi said that she wanted to become her country's president. She made the announcement in front of delegates to an economic forum in the Burmese capital Naypyidaw; even a cabinet minister was listening. She sounded almost flirtatious when she said it, as if she had learned to play the game.

Every gesture and every word coming from Aung San Suu Kyi in the last two years has been a test. How close is she to the military leaders now? Is she deferring to them? And exactly who is using whom? Are the country's military leaders trying to burnish their image with a Nobel peace prize winner, or is the Nobel laureate guiding the establishment toward change?

While in captivity, Aung San Suu Kyi's determination made her a role model. But now that she is free, she has to combine morality and pragmatism, and, once again, the country is paying attention to her. Many in Burma have a story of enmity to tell, and if even the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi is negotiating with the old generals, shouldn't others feel that it's alright to do the same?

'We Are Trying to Adjust'

The former enemies cannot escape one another. They can only decide whether they will have the strength to reconcile or the will to come to an agreement. But how can this succeed in a country whose population looks back on half a century of military dictatorship? Some don't want to think about their culpability. Others can't forget their fear -- such as Toe Zaw Latt, a journalist and former dissident.

There is no sign on his office door. Inside, the green curtains are drawn shut and a tarp covers half the balcony. "Old habits," says Toe Zaw Latt with a laugh. He was with the rebels in the jungle in the late 1980s, he worked in Thailand for the opposition broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and he is familiar with resistance and secrecy. He has spent his life studying his enemy.

"If you become too high profile, they feel attacked," he says. He doesn't say exactly to whom he is referring. Nor does he say whom he and the others from the DVB are actually hiding from. They are no longer part of an exile station based in Norway that secretly sends its reporters into Burma. Now, DVB has an office in Rangoon. They are no longer fighting a dictatorship of generals. Now they struggle with power outages instead. There is a generator on the balcony outside their office. "We are trying to adjust, both externally and in terms of our emotions," says Toe Zaw Latt.

The 43-year-old bureau chief for DVB in Burma, Toe Zaw Latt is doing his best to adjust. He doesn't wear pants as often as he used to. Instead, he prefers to wear the longyi, a long sheet of cloth knotted above the waist, like most men in Burma. But he finds his suspicions more difficult to shed. Toe Zaw Latt only returned to his native Burma in March 2012 with an Australian passport, after 24 years in exile. The Burma he returned to feels in many ways utterly new.

Can the Change be Trusted?

Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of parliament, the European Union has lifted its sanctions, Coca-Cola recently opened a bottling plant, and President Thein Sein recently released more political prisoners. And the people who were fighting for democracy when it was still extremely dangerous to do so are now preparing for an important date: the 25th anniversary of their pro-democracy movement. Students took to the streets on Aug. 8, 1988, and weeks of demonstrations ensued before the military junta crushed the protests, killing thousands. There will be a commemoration ceremony from the "88 Generation Students Group" as part of the anniversary celebrations. The group operated underground for years; now, their meetings are written about in the newspaper.

But Toe Zaw Latt still isn't sure whether to trust the changes that are taking place. As an academic, he studied models of transformation in societies, including the end of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of East Germany. He was always interested in examining how a country could successfully reinvent itself. In some cases, the former rulers are suddenly gone, sometimes there is a process in which the new elites replace the old ones, and sometimes the ruling class retains control and yet creates space for new players. This is the case in Burma, where the man who represents change, President Thein Sein, is a former general. Military personnel and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) hold a majority in parliament.

But Toe Zaw Latt knows what the Burmese military is capable of. He was there during the 1988 uprising, was forced to flee and had to endure the government telling his parents that he was dead. Seventeen journalists who had previously worked for DVB in secret were in prison, because they had reported on the uprising of monks in 2007 and the generals' dismal handling of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. At the time, DVB reporters traveled in groups of three, with one person secretly filming using a camera hidden inside a cake box, another one observing the secret police observing them, and the third transporting the footage out of the country. The reporters had one important rule: Don't even tell your mother that you have a camera.

Between Compromise and Betrayal

When the DVB began working openly in Burma last summer, it initially had to negotiate with the Ministry of Information over its name. For the military, the journalists had been nothing but "saboteurs" who produced a "sky full of lies." So what name was the station to use in its official registration? The bureaucrats weren't troubled by the word "democratic," but they didn't like the use of "Burma" for the country they had renamed the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The journalists from Oslo explained that Democratic Voice of Burma was a brand name. In the end, the two sides agreed on the name DVB Multimedia Group.

The case illustrates the fine line between compromise and betrayal, and what constitutes a legitimate strategy. The Democratic Voice of Burma even provided assistance to employees of the state-owned television network. What's the best way to ask a question? How do you define news? In return, the state-owned broadcaster sometimes provides DVB with footage at no cost. In addition, the information ministry is helping the journalists get their studio equipment from Oslo through Burmese customs. Ever since President Thein Sein gave the station an interview, even Burmese officials have realized that the former enemy of the state deserves respect.

"We no longer know who is our friend and who is our enemy. And the government is in the same position," says Toe Zaw Latt. Eight former political prisoners now work for him in Burma, and some find the new, closer relations with the government surprising. But the time of heroes is over, and the time of deals has begun.

Toe Zaw Latt says that he and his colleagues will convince the information ministry to change its course, and that everyone will benefit in the end. "We didn't hate individuals. We hated the system," he says, which is why he has a "good relationship" with Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut. Toe Zaw Latt calls him the "Facebook minister," because he is so active on the Internet.

The Minister of Transition

The road to the "Facebook minister" takes us to the capital Naypyidaw, built at a time when the generals still believed that they could embellish their power with 20-lane roads. Now that it's been built, a monumental capital devoid of people, Naypyidaw no longer fits to the current government. The military leaders turned their backs on Rangoon in 2005, partly because they feared an invasion by the Americans.

But now Burma has a president who visited Washington in May and sent US President Barack Obama his best wishes on America's Independence Day. Now the Burmese leadership is trying to portray itself as modern and democratic, which is difficult against a backdrop full of the architecture of dictatorship.

The Information Ministry is hidden behind trees, a drab, flat-roofed building with drab corridors and a dimly lit lobby. Polite women lead us up the stairs and into a room where Ye Htut is sitting in front of a picture window, bathed in light. He is smiling. The former military man likes to smile. He has attractive white teeth and a talent for propaganda. He speaks English fluently, which he says he taught himself. He likes to watch the BBC.

It takes Ye Htut only a minute to make his key points. "There is no longer a role for state-owned media in a democratic country," he says. Instead, he explains, the media must no longer represent the government, but rather all citizens. But why, then, does his ministry still exist? "We are supervising the transition," he explains.

'We're the Good Ones'

Ye Htut travels a lot these days. He was in Scandinavia and Germany last year. He wants to learn how to develop a public broadcasting system. He is proud of the fact that privately owned daily newspapers have been allowed in Burma since April 1. He believes that the government is now much more transparent. "Trust me, we are the good guys," he says.

Ye Htut points to a computer screen. He has 44,814 followers on Facebook. "I allow the public to write comments. And sometimes I even respond to those comments." Some people berate him online, he says, calling him a liar, a monkey and a dog. "I let them," he says, pleased with his own generosity.

I ask one more question: Will the Ministry of Information still exist in five years? "I can't tell you that," says the minister of transition, as he takes his leave.

But even if the institutions and perhaps even the people change, the question Burma faces is how to come to terms with historical wrongs and create justice. Its military leaders will not submit to the jurisdiction of an international criminal court. They are still too powerful for that.

Toe Zaw Latt, the former exile, wants a commission to be set up with representatives of the government, the army and the victims. Its goal would be to mediate, or at least to shed light on the wrongs of the past. There is so much injustice in Burma, even to this day, including atrocities against Muslims and ethnic minorities. Toe Zaw Latt says that government officials have shown interest in his idea. Truth without punishment is something they could possibly support.

Shaking Hands with the Tormentor

But Than Htay, one of the victims of the injustices carried out in the recent past, wasn't about to wait for any commission. On a Sunday in June, he paid a visit to his old tormenter. He went to a gallery, not to look at the art, but to see the gallerist. The man's name is Khin Nyunt. Once one of the most powerful men in Burma, he served as the head of military intelligence and as prime minister. Today he grows orchids. When Than Htay found him in the gallery's souvenir shop, he saw a face from which pride had disappeared. Then, as he says, he shook his hand and said: "My name is Than Htay. I am a former political prisoner. We were once enemies."

Than Htay's real reason to travel to Rangoon from his village was to learn English. For weeks, he had been camping out in the office of Former Political Prisoners (FPPs), an organization that caters to the needs of former prisoners. He rolled out his sleeping mat at night, and during the day he helped out at the organization, which is in the process of trying to document all political prisoners reaching back to 1962, when the military took control. It has thus far registered 400.

But now he was standing in front of the man who was prime minister for little over a year, from 2003 until 2004. "That's all in the past," said Khin Nyunt. When Than Htay posed the question he had come to ask, Khin Nyunt's face went red and he couldn't stop smiling: "How do you feel, in light of the things you have done?" Khin Nyunt, choosing his words carefully, replied: "I did the best I could do for my country. But sometimes people at lower levels do bad things."

Than Htay and other political prisoners experienced firsthand what those people did. They made them squat on the ground in chains until their muscles became cramped. One former prisoner now lives in the office of Former Political Prisoners, because his family no longer wants to have anything to do with him. He sleeps in the large room, under the conference table, because he can't breathe in small spaces. He grinds his teeth at night, and he cries a lot. When he wants to think, he paces back and forth, his head bowed and his hands folded behind his back, the way he once did in his cell.

Undeserved Retirement?

FPPs is now negotiating with the government over the release of additional prisoners. President Thein Sein has just announced that there will be no prisoners of conscience in Burma by the end of the year. In 2011, the same president was still denying the existence of political prisoners.

"Will you be involved in politics in the future?" Than Htay asked former dictator Khin Nyunt. "No," he replied, "I'm bored with politics."

Khin Nyunt prefers to make souvenir photos. When Than Htay and his former tormenter were standing next to each other, Than Htay suggested that they hold each other's hands. Shortly before the picture was taken, Khin Nyunt suddenly pulled Than Htay toward him, until he was so close that their upper bodies were touching. The man who had been accustomed to ruling over other people was also dictating the parameters of reconciliation.

Some people ask how a man like Khin Nyunt can be allowed to make his peace between a goldfish pond and a porch swing, drinking cappuccino in the café next to his gallery in the morning and planting a mango tree while wearing jogging pants in the afternoon. Mango is the favorite fruit of this amiable retiree in flip-flops, who likes to talk about his two German shepherd dogs and the 25 different types of orchid in his garden, but not about the crimes of the military junta and his own responsibility.

This month, the DVB published on its website an angry op-ed letter from an academic. In Burma's "brave new world of democracy," he writes, exposure and condemnation of violations are "politically sensitive," and justice is irrelevant. "If Khin Nyunt and his collaborators escape the courts here in this life, the hungry ghosts will be waiting for them in the next."

Than Htay says that he doesn't want to think about this. He has other things on his mind now, such as getting his driver's license. But the others at Former Political Prisoners can't forget the injustice of the past. They want to document it, both for the history books and to secure compensation for those who have been released. For security purposes, the forms showing the names of the former prisoners are being kept in a secret location. Although FPPs has begun coming to terms with the past, it doesn't know whether the system that tormented the political prisoners has truly been relegated to the past.

There is one man, however, who has ensured that the transition from the past into this new era has been a smooth one for him. On Aug. 20, 2012, Tint Swe managed to eliminate himself and become immortal at the same time. On that day, Burma's chief censor announced that from then on, journalists would no longer be required to submit advance copies of their articles to his agency. He told the AFP news agency that it could run the following sentence: "Censorship began on Aug. 6, 1964 and ended 48 years and two weeks later."

Change sits well with Tint Swe. A heavy man, his neck bulges over his round collar as he sits down on a red sofa. Tint Swe is now a television director.

Which job does he prefer?

"As a government official, I must accept my obligations," he says. He served in the military for more than 20 years and, after working in thought control for seven years, his new job is to promote the freedom of thought. The ministry has ordered him to transform the state-owned broadcaster into a modern broadcasting company.

Tint Swe has been allowed to continue playing the game of the powerful, albeit from a different position of influence. His old power apparatus has not only been destroyed, but also exposed. Journalists now laugh about the pages with text crossed out in red, which were returned to them from the censorship office. They are keeping old newspapers as souvenirs. Now everyone can see which words and which reality Tint Swe had deleted, and which truths hurt him.

He would, for instance, cross out the word "political" in the expression "political prisoner," and he would remove Aung San Suu Kyi's image, as well as the phrase "corrupt government officials."

Tint Swe's staff used to spend three days poring over a weekly newspaper, devoting a day to the second version and half a day to the third. Tint Swe says that his old job was tiring. He says that he felt happy on the day he announced the end of censorship.

But the new freedom is also strenuous for him. How is he supposed to praise the same press freedoms which he himself once obstructed? It is a question to which Tint Swe has no clear answer. "We had to do it for the stability of the country. At this time, this was according to the law," he says. "Since I started working there, we were told to gradually loosen the reins."

Sometimes the soldier in him is speaking, and sometimes the writer. Tint Swe has written seven books -- about military issues, Buddhism and morality. He knows what it feels like when others hold sway over one's own writings. He once waited a year and a month for permission to print one of his books. It was before he came into office. There is still a hint of outrage in his voice. "When I took the position, it never took me more than two months to approve a book."

He isn't happy here, in his broadcasting headquarters. Of course, his new office is bigger, but he simply prefers Rangoon. He was born there, and his family lives there. Besides, he adds, television isn't his specialty. But, he has been given the order to create new TV programming, and he is carrying out the order.

Toe Zaw Latt, the man from the Democratic Voice of Burma, and the old chief censor are now competitors in the media business -- as long as things continue to progress as they have been, and the military doesn't suddenly lose its interest in change.

Tint Swe already has a new book project in mind, and he is merely waiting for the right time. The old chief censor wants to write about the decades of censorship -- completely uncensored.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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