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A Taste of Freedom: Burma’s Guarded Optimism

The polite Burmese man guiding me through the ramshackle streets of Yangon smiles at my disbelief after he admits he paid over $6,000 for the SIM card in his unimpressive mobile phone a decade ago. “Yes, I know,” he says. “It is far more than the phone itself costs,” as though this were my concern.

The price of SIMs tells a compacted story of recent Burmese history. While prices have slowly gone down, a SIM card still cost more than $1,000 as recently as two years ago, as the ruling junta restricted access to cell phone networks to a very select few by charging astronomical prices for the necessary hardware, limiting the flow of information and lining its pockets at the same time. Then in March 2012, the year-old civilian government announced it was cutting the price of the cards in half, eventually allowing them to reach current lows of about $240. That may not seem like much of an improvement in a country where per capita GDP is only $1,300 and the same cards go for $5 in neighboring Thailand, but to the millions of Burmese who could now suddenly dream of owning a cell phone, it was an undeniable sign of progress.

Even impoverished North Korea has more cell phones per capita than Burma, and my GSM BlackBerry—which has worked in every corner of the globe from Alaska to Afghanistan—receives exactly zero bars of service there because the country has no roaming agreements with outside providers. But most Burmese see the bright side because the government has slowly relinquished power, and foreign companies are vying for the chance to come in and build a major network.

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This year, as the pace of political reform has picked up, the Burmese have reacted with joy and incredulity. Until now, businessmen in Burma enjoyed a somewhat slower pace of life because smartphones were unable to retrieve e-mail and international calls rarely got through on the first try. All that is finally about to change.

In addition to releasing its grip on private communications, the government has also introduced almost unrestricted freedom of the press. In August, Tint Swe, head of the country’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, announced that newspapers would no longer have to submit their copy to the censor’s red pen before publication. There are still official guidelines in place for covering sensitive topics and journalists can get in trouble for offending government officials, but for the first time in fifty years there is no pre-publication censorship.

At one of the ubiquitous newsstands that now line the streets, a shopkeeper boasts that she has one hundred and sixty-six newspapers she could choose to sell, most of them privately run. At this time last year she had only four state-approved papers to offer. “The old newspapers were so boring,” says one thirty-three-year-old man who has studied in Singapore and now works as a tour guide. “Now it’s very fun to read the newspapers, because there is a lot of news about the world. In the old days we couldn’t read anything about the Arab Spring, and now we can.” He adds with a laugh: “We even make fun of Kim Jong-un, how he’s eating caviar, and we call him a ‘fat bastard.’”

The majority of the periodicals show longtime dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on their covers, and everyone is clearly still awestruck that the government allows it to happen.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines in November 2011 when she became the senior-most US official to visit Burma in fifty years. When President Obama visited the country after his reelection in November 2012, the streets of Yangon boiled over with excitement and pro-America fervor over what until recently was an unimaginable happening.

Citizens have stopped holding their breath and waiting for the opening to close. Now that the reforms have so directly touched their lives, waves of pent-up political hopes are washing over the country.

 

If not for this newly licensed excitement and sense of independence, Burma’s commercial heart and former capital Yangon would fit well amid the gray capitals behind the Iron Curtain in the 1970s. The billboards are yellow and outdated. The cars, most more than thirty years old thanks to longstanding international economic sanctions, are boxy and rusted, with left-handed steering wheels, designed for the old British system, making today’s driving on the right side of the road hazardous. Infrastructure is badly dilapidated, and a few memorable Buddhist icons are the only tourist attractions. The homely city is a stark contrast with China, where six hundred million people may still live on less than six dollars a day, but Lamborghinis cruise the streets of Beijing and French clothiers do brisk business.

In Burma, not a single merchant accepts credit cards. My four-star hotel was one of the few that listed “guaranteed twenty-four hour electricity” as an amenity, yet it only took new, perfectly crisp $100 bills—the only foreign currency accepted at most merchants—as payment. Domestic airlines issue hand-written paper tickets, and airports don’t require passengers to provide identification before checking in to their flights or boarding an aircraft—unheard-of in the modern world.

Yet for the first time in a generation, the Burmese are free to say what they want in public. As we walk barefoot past the gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most famous landmark, a new friend chats excitedly about how different his life is now compared to just a few months ago. “It’s really amazing, you know,” he says. “A year ago I would have never stood here out in the open and talked about the government with anybody.”

This Burmese man, whose white button-down shirt and traditional longyi skirt suggests the straddle between the past and present most people in this country have adopted, nonetheless reflexively lowers his voice when talking about Than Shwe, the general who held power for almost twenty years and has largely stayed out of the spotlight since stepping down in 2011 to let current president Thein Sein take over. “Some people say he is still pulling the strings,” he whispers.

The Burmese people have faith in only a few of their charismatic leaders, figures such as Thein Sein, a former general who introduced the current political reforms, and especially Aung San Suu Kyi, longtime opposition leader and spokesman for democracy who was under house arrest for fifteen years and became an international icon when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament in 2012; her fervent followers hope that she will be elected the next president, after Thein Sein retires.

The people loved her father, General Aung Sun, who united Burma’s tribes after they gained independence from the British in 1948, just as they love her now. Still, they don’t trust parties or institutions, even hers. Although he is sometimes called the Mikhail Gorbachev of Asia, some of Thein Sein’s own countrymen remain unconvinced. Burmese intellectuals watch carefully as he slowly reshuffles his Cabinet, and delicately tries to block Than Shwe’s disciples from regaining power. If he is successful, and democratic processes take root, he too will likely be in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize.

With forces from all sides pushing for change, Burma is in a precarious position. For the past fifteen years, the military has been the only stable institution in the country, and if the new leaders remove the brass too soon, they know chaos and civil war could follow. But the people, having tasted freedom, are hungry for more.

The transition to come will not be easy. Burma has been isolated from modernity by the military dictatorship for so long that it has few technocrats to take control of its political institutions. Opposition leaders recognize that they must continue working through the military, even if they do so while holding their nose. Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly spends a great deal of her time trying to negotiate harmonious agreements between the government and the generals over large issues and small ones—a key requirement for a stable transition to democratic rule.

Although the prospect of a military coup seems to fade farther into the background with each passing month, people still fear the possibility of such an end to their new freedom. They know that in Burma, as in many Asian and African countries, the ministry of defense is the true bastion of power, and can unseat a president it doesn’t approve of. Since 1962, the year the Burmese military junta seized power, neighboring Thailand has had no fewer than eight coups. Completely disenfranchising the military now would wreak havoc, as pragmatic leaders like Suu Kyi understand. The feeling of the people is “so far so good.” They like to point out to visitors that the Burmese Spring is going far better than the Arab Spring.

 

In September 2011, during the early stages of the current opening, the new government halted construction on the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River in the northern part of the country. Ninety percent of the hydroelectric power produced by this $3.6 billion project, the single largest Chinese investment in Burma, was supposed to be exported to China. The pause in construction was tied to the move toward openness and democracy in Burmese civic life.

During years of sanctions by Western countries, the Burmese turned to China for development and investment. China was the main intermediary and trading partner. Because of sanctions most Burmese goods had to be exported through China or Thailand, and the Chinese had almost free access to Burma’s natural resources. Today, however, the Burmese, beginning to find their voice in foreign policy, are talking about Chinese exploitation. They no longer feel that the choice is between Chinese development and no development at all. Coming out of the darkness of the recent past, they see that foreign policy is a game of enlightened self-interest. China might be angered by the fact that it no longer calls the tune in the Burmese economy, but it still must do the economic dance to advance its interests.

Burma is particularly crucial to the Chinese because it provides the shortest route to the sea for China’s landlocked southwestern province, Yunnan. Cutting across Burma to the Bay of Bengal gives the Chinese much faster access to the Middle East and Europe and cuts thousands of miles that would have to be traversed by sea through the Strait of Malacca—a vulnerable route through which China moves eighty percent of its energy imports, and which could easily be blockaded by the US Navy. The proposed pipelines across Burma from Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal are critical to China’s growing energy demands. This has made Beijing hedge its bets. There is evidence that local Chinese officials along the Yunnan border are aiding (and potentially even arming) the rebels there in their fight against the Burmese government. China is trying to make sure it will have influence with whatever side wins out in the struggle for the Burmese future.

The Burmese acknowledge that a robust relationship with China will continue out of shared necessity, but at the same time they have woken up to the fact that they may have other alternatives. The rejection of Chinese investment dollars at the Myitsone Dam was seen as a major policy reorientation in Burma. Several other major Chinese-funded mega projects, including a proposed rail link from Yunnan to Burma’s capital, are currently on hold.

One problem China faces is that while it has poured billions of dollars into investment projects in Burma, it has failed to maximize goodwill through the exercise of soft power. The Chinese bring their own laborers and resources, and don’t use local companies. Because they keep themselves isolated from the local culture, they fail to provide many of the ancillary benefits host nations have come to expect from foreign developers. This “insensitivity” is a large reason why the Burmese as a whole are orienting themselves toward the West, and America in particular, and away from Beijing. Young people in Burma today are more interested in learning English than Chinese.

Astute observers say President Obama’s historic visit to Burma was mainly about containing China, not about Burmese independence. It is true that engaging with the countries on China’s periphery is a central tenet of the US’s rebalancing to Asia. But the Obama visit also triggered the release of hundreds of political prisoners—a sign that the US has an important role to play in Burma. There are American advisers on the ground helping the Burmese develop the structure for its emerging democracy, including the best way to write laws relating to intellectual property and human rights—the basics of civil society. The Obama administration has endeavored to broadcast effective messages of support and encouragement for the Burmese Spring, including assigning the first ambassador to the country in twenty-two years.

 

Unlike China and Vietnam, which underwent decades of economic liberalization before achieving the beginnings of a political opening, Burma is starting the other way around. This creates a somewhat precarious situation in which old grievances endured under the authoritarian regime are now coming to the surface while there is still no mechanism—and especially no effective rule of law—in place to appropriately process and rectify those wounds. Clashes among ethnic groups in the border regions have spiked dramatically since the “spring,” in large part because the population’s newfound ability to organize and protest has made it easier for extremist elements to sow unrest. Many of these border areas, like the edges of Rakhine State in the northwest, are occasionally restricted for leisure travelers because of the dangerous conflicts now taking place. This region is home to hundreds of thousands of undocumented Muslim refugees, for instance, whom many Burmese still refer to as Bengali even though many have lived in Burma for three generations. The Burmese protest against allowing uneducated Muslim refugees legal status, while Muslim groups accuse Burma of anti-Muslim bias and violence. Tensions between the Buddhist locals and the Muslim refugees are high, and each clash sets off waves of unrest that are felt throughout the rest of the country.

Fractiousness is one of the dark sides of Burmese reform. An example of the country’s identity crisis came at the end of November, amid international outrage at the excessive force used to quell protests at the Letpadaung copper mine. For years locals had decried the mine as an ecological disaster that was the result of cronyism in a joint venture between a Chinese company and firms tied to Burma’s military. Police used tear gas and smoke bombs in a pre-dawn raid of the protests camps, and at least forty people, mostly monks, were injured and sustained severe burns. The crackdown was reminiscent of the violent suppression of monk protesters during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and immediately called into question the sincerity of Thein Sein’s reforms. The police have since apologized for their overreaction, and the government condemned local officials for their role in the crackdown, but it was a sharp reminder that Burma still has a long and difficult road ahead.

Despite the sense that their country is taking one step back for every two steps forward, the consensus among the Burmese at this point is that it is unlikely that any national crisis, however deep, could provide a pretext for the rollback of their new freedoms. Somewhat unexpectedly, there has been no major pushback by the military against the reforms. Cynical observers say that the reforms started when they did because the junta simply realized it had become unsustainable to continue to rule an isolated and impoverished country under a tightly controlled system. Most likely, they saw that while it would be out of their control, a new system would bring sweeping improvements and the old elite would be first in line to benefit from a more vibrant economy.

The main problem for the future is that the Burmese middle class is practically non-existent, and creating one from scratch after twenty years of economic and political deadlock is a tall order. As far as anyone can tell, there is no master plan for economic reform, yet things are happening rapidly. One in four Burmese people don’t have access to electricity, and few government dollars go to education or development programs that will eradicate endemic poverty. To truly improve the lives of the people the government will need to spend money on health care and reduce defense spending.

But the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released a report in August that projected that Burma would become one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, and could expect seven to eight percent economic growth annually for at least the next decade, if the reforms now beginning were to continue at the current pace. That same month, the ADB and World Bank also opened up offices in Yangon for the first time since the 1980s. The ADB predicts that within ten years Burma could double its per capita GDP, largely on the strength of exports of its plentiful resources like natural gas and timber as well as increases in foreign investment. International companies are already looking past the increasingly expensive manufacturing centers of China to relatively more affordable countries such as Burma to build their plants.

The Burmese government will continue to make the transition from inefficient state-controlled enterprises to market-driven policies in hopes of introducing effective economic reforms that will make most Burmese better off than they are now. In the current atmosphere, small things count. An example of new changes that have touched the lives of many citizens was a reform of the odious permit requirements necessary to import a car. That there was a minimum one hundred and twenty percent tax on imported cars was only a small part of the problem. The real difficulty lay in obtaining the permit to import in the first place. Since 1999 these permits have been nearly impossible for anyone outside the generals’ inner circle to obtain. The price on the black market for this simple piece of paper just last year was still roughly $105,000. Combined with customs fees, shipping, and other expenses, a $20,000 Japanese car would cost about $130,000. It was no wonder that Burma had become the land of used cars.

President Thein Sein announced that in 2012 the government would offer an import permit to anyone who turned in a car older than 1988. Overnight a shortage of old cars was created, as even those who didn’t have one immediately tried to buy one just to turn it in and obtain a precious import waiver—itself an important lesson in the mechanics of the market economy. There is still a tax in excess of one hundred and twenty percent, but now the purchase of new cars is no longer an exercise in corruption.

In June, Thein Sein called for the country to institute a minimum wage for the first time, as well as workers’ protections, making sure that all Burmese feel the overwhelming positive effects of reform. But because most of the reforms are being done by decree, much still hinges in Burma on the leaders’ personalities and their ability to sell their policies through the force of their charisma.

Despite the problems, all Burmese seem to agree on the path toward progress, and for the time being they’re basking in newfound freedoms and enjoying what they know may just be a honeymoon period. During his recent visit there, President Obama spoke optimistically about the country’s new democracy. But the Burmese understand that the slow and serious work of building it has just begun.

Aleksandra Kulczuga is a freelance writer based in Beijing. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and Europe, including the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy.

Photo Credit: Russavia

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