Light at the End of the Tunnel?

By Aung Zaw 13 January 2015

People are saying that it is difficult, these days, to stay optimistic about the immediate future. My friends who are Buddhists say nothing is permanent, and so they wait patiently for things to change.

Sure, change will happen, but how and when? Since reforms began in 2011, it has often been hard not to feel as though one were watching a badly produced Hollywood movie, with a flawed plot, a poorly written script and a cast of incongruous characters.

In the long run, I keep telling myself, things must get better. But meanwhile, many of my friends feel that our generation will not see what we wish for: a free, prosperous and united Myanmar with a federal system, governed by the people. The kind of Myanmar envisaged by independence leader Gen. Aung San all those many decades ago.

So what hope is there for the year ahead? According to a nationwide public survey conducted by The Asia Foundation in Myanmar, 62 percent of respondents are generally positive about the direction the country is heading in, while 77 percent believe that planned democratic elections will bring about positive change.

The non-profit organization carried out interviews with more than 3,000 respondents in the regions and states, asking a wide range of questions concerning government, democracy, and the political, social and economic values of people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

“The survey results show that in the early stages of Myanmar’s transition to democracy, people are generally hopeful about the future, though that optimism is tempered by a number of challenges,” The Asia Foundation said.

My blood flowed a little more freely after reading this, though doubts lingered. As the Foundation points out, a number of challenges do indeed remain. Signs of government backtracking include renewed fighting in ethnic regions; a clampdown on independent media; the unchecked rise of religious extremism and tension between Buddhist and Muslim communities; and the military’s ongoing role in politics.

As I mentioned in a recent speech in New York to accept an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Myanmar is a land of green. I was not referring to its beautiful forests and trees. Rather, I meant that those in uniform continue to rule the country.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.
Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

In November, a colleague in his early fifties, who works at an international organization in Yangon, told me, “We have the potential to grow, but it is being squandered [by leaders].” The optimism we felt over the past few years has slowly been fading away.

In reality, many people feel that they have no power to institute the change they want. This is the real problem. Moreover, fear of the unknown is still pervasive. This fear can be found among top leaders, who are afraid of losing political and economic power. It is also present among ordinary people who fear that the status quo will endure.

Amid the growing concerns over the reform process, Myanmar continues to attract investment and international recognition. On his trip to the country in November for the ASEAN and East Asia Summits, US President Barack Obama said that the democratization process was “real.” The US has also opened the door to small-scale military to military engagement.

Other donor countries continue to pledge more aid and investment. The European Union recently announced it would send US$900 million in aid to Myanmar over the next seven years.

Many international actors seem convinced that the situation in Myanmar is, inexorably, improving. A colleague who has worked in various aid agencies told me that within the international community, “Everyone is drinking the Kool-aid. They try hard to convince themselves that they are working for solutions in the country.”

Notwithstanding The Asia Foundation’s survey results indicating that the majority of respondents feel positive about the country’s prospects, it is my experience that many people feel the immediate future looks bleak.

After the ups and downs of 2014, we still hold out hope for fundamental change. There are small glimmers of light amid the darkness. As the survey found, although fears of expressing political views in public continue to linger following decades of military rule, 93 percent of respondents said they would vote in the upcoming elections.

So what will 2015 bring? There will be no overnight miracle or shortcut to a free and prosperous country. We continue to tell ourselves to remain cautiously optimistic, but this is really only a defense against deep disappointment.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in- chief of The Irrawaddy. This article first appeared in the Jan. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.