One-and-a-half years after Thein Sein assumed the presidency, and amidst the most profound wave of reforms since Gen Ne Win seized power in 1962, that Burma is undergoing a transition to democracy seems more undeniable by the day.
And there are changes indeed, as I could see during a one-month trip to the country in July and August. But if the current condition of Burma is to be termed “in transition,” it belongs to the most uneven and contested of kinds.
Rangoon is where the shift of political atmosphere is most conspicuous. There are also changes in the urban landscape—the once virtually traffic jam-free roads are now routinely clogged almost like Bangkok by hundreds of new cars, and the image of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has turned from contraband to commodity and sold all over the city.
Now dozens of Western businessmen with suitcases arrange deals in venues like the smart 365 Coffee, and many more tourists roam around, visiting famous spots such as the decrepit NLD headquarters near the Shwedagon Pagoda which has turned into a new attraction since the April 1 by-election. Japanese tourists take pictures as if the crumbling party office was the Louvre Museum of Paris.
And there is a newfound freedom of expression that many Burmese are enthusiastic to exploit. Now it is possible to maintain open conversations in teashops that just one year ago were only held in private, in hushed tones or not at all. This includes ordinary Burmese as well as activists or those involved in politics.
Once, while dinning in a cheap restaurant, the waiter looked with curiosity at the Kindle I was reading and we ended up viewing pictures featured within the latest biography of Suu Kyi—The Lady and the Peacock by Peter Popham.
Soon other people congregated around to see the spectacle. The cashier of the restaurant, a girl in her 20s who did not speak English, was able to correctly identify all the images with one telling mistake—when shown a picture of a monk fleeing the mayhem of the brutal crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” anti-government protests of 2007, she instead said “Rakhine [Arakan] State.”
Despite the airs of change, not everybody agrees on the meaning of this “transition.” A Burmese political analyst based in Rangoon who did not want to be identified expressed skepticism about the changes and argued that the “hardliners versus softliners” narrative often fostered by the regime is mere “theater.” “We could have expected the appearance of more softliners if the international community would have shown more caution with the new government,” he said.
He was no less incensed about the ceremony held by the 88 Generation Students in Mandalay to celebrate the 24th anniversary of the 1988 popular uprising. Government ministers Aung Min and Soe Thein gave a donation of one million kyat to group leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi for their commemorative event. “Now you can buy a revolution in this country for one million kyat,” said the analyst, to which Ko Ko Gyi replied, “even countries at war have diplomatic relationships, so why not?”
It seems that even within the National League for Democracy (NLD) there are different perceptions of the political situation. Senior party member Win Tin stated that “there are changes in the mechanism of the state, of course, but here is not political change at all.”
Other people in the NLD showed more enthusiasm. One member who was elected as an MP in the annulled 1990 general election told me in their headquarters that “we trust our President U Thein Sein,” and explained that the president had done two good things to defend the nation—the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project and measures to tackle the conflict in Arakan State.
In any case, possible signs of change fade away gradually as one moves out from the center of the big urban areas. A trip by train is enough to see the crippling poverty in which most Burmese live. In the outskirts of Mandalay, entering the city after an exhausting journey from the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, one witnesses dozens of children as young as four or five begging along the railway line—waiting for passengers to throw them anything to eat or drink.
Every trace of a political opening disappears completely outside of what the British colonialists called “Burma proper”—the Burman-majority divisions at the geographical heart of the country. There are not the winds, not even a breeze, of change in Kachin State, a region mired in civil war since a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and central government broke down last June.
Speaking with Ze Nyoi, a 39-year-old Kachin refugee at the Janmai Internally Displaced Persons camp on the outskirts of Myitkyina, it is extremely difficult to believe that the country is heading towards democracy. Her husband, Brang Shawng, was detained in the camp in June by Burma’s fearsome Military Intelligence (MI) under suspicion of collaborating with the KIO.
Three days after his arrest, Brang Shawng was taken back to the camp by his captors, ostensibly to do a staging of his criminal activities which was recorded on video camera by the intelligence agents. According to his wife and one of the camp managers, his body bore the scars of the torture suffered under detention and the episode terrified the rest of the camp-dwellers.
According to his lawyer, some days later, Brang Shawng signed a confession and was presented before a judge who discovered a tape recorder hidden in his shirt by the MI to make sure that he said what he had been told to say.
The judge dismissed his confession and admonished the agents, only to be replaced the next day by another judge who was more compliant. Now Brang Shawng is waiting for the verdict and, according to the manager of his camp and his wife, is completely demoralized while the torture has taken a heavy toll on his mental health.
An overwhelming majority of Kachin people I spoke with in Myitkyina, and in the KIO’s headquarters of Laiza during a previous trip, do not believe in the reformist credentials of Thein Sein in the slightest, and many consider him a mere puppet of former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
For instance, it was reported last December that Thein Sein ordered the army not to shoot first in Kachin State and that his orders were not being obeyed on the ground. However, Sumlut Gam, the chief of the KIO’s negotiation team that deals with the government, says he is convinced that Thein Sein never actually issued that order.
Suu Kyi herself does not seem to have garnered too much trust among many Kachin people either. Both in Myitkyina or Laiza, is virtually impossible to find the iconic portraits of her that are ubiquitous in Rangoon or Mandalay. One Catholic priest even told me that it was impossible for him, as a Kachin, to trust any Burman, not even “the Lady.”
There are not many portraits of Suu Kyi to be seen in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, either. One of the few states in which the Nobel Laureate’s party did not win a majority in the 1990 ballot, Arakan State is a bastion of Rakhine nationalists with the NLD only recently opening its first office there.
By contrast, Thein Sein seems to be far more popular and people wearing t-shirts with his face and “We support our President U Thein Sein” are not difficult to spot. This support comes from the government’s handling of the crisis provoked by sectarian violence between the Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya communities and the president’s proposal in July to expel the Rohingya population to third countries.
If Kachin State is mired in war, Arakan State is mired in hatred and fear. Both sentiments are very much palpable in the streets of Sittwe. The distrust between each community runs deep and the government has segregated them to avoid new clashes. The Rohingya people, however, are in a clear position of inferiority, unable to move freely and confined in their own camps and ghetto-like slums.
The Rakhine are clearly much happier with this segregation than their Muslim neighbors, as demonstrated by conversations with many of them, including my fixer and translator in the Rakhine refugee camps.
The NLD member would openly display his prejudices against the Rohingya and Muslims in general by saying things like, “there are many more rapists among them than in other religions,” and his support for the current government that “is acting as a good referee.”
In one sign of the eagerness of the government to show its new face to the world, I could visit the camps of the Rohingya—closed and heavily guarded by the security forces—but only while escorted by the police, supposedly for my own security.
“You can go wherever you want, we are in a transition period and we wish to show everything to journalists,” said Police Lt-Col Myo Min Aung in the lobby of a hotel in Sittwe. A stout man in his 30s who counts Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls about the Spanish Civil War as one of his favorite books, he was sent to Arakan from Rangoon three months ago to assume control of the situation.
Progress is undeniable as it would have been unthinkable to have such a conversation only one year ago. Nevertheless, access to many places—the Muslim quarters or specific camps I asked to visit—turned out to be absolutely restricted, sometimes due to “security concerns,” sometimes with the excuse that “hardliner people in the army” were there at that moment and should not see me. Or perhaps due to fact that, despite its “openness,” the Burmese authorities still have too many things to hide.