Richard Lipez: Hope returns to Myanmar


BANGKOK >> In a world where so many countries sometimes seem headed straight for hell — our own high on any list — it's nice to be able to report on a place that after decades of police state misery and brutality is finally doing a whole lot better. That unusual land is Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The last time I wrote about Myanmar, I had to use a pseudonym, Gerald R. Scutler, a name I made up, for fear of offending the military dictatorship and being barred from reentering the country. I was being careful, even though a Burmese friend in Yangon told me, "Don't worry, they can't read."

After decades of total government control of the national information flow, there's now a lively semi-free press in Myanmar and anybody can say what they please — provided they are willing to risk ten years in prison. About 15 reporters are currently in jail for exposing official corruption. A favorite charge is "disturbing a public servant."

This half-free press — free only in the sense that independent publications are allowed to publish at all — is one of many ways in which the transition of Myanmar from a poverty-wracked fascist state to a humane democracy is only partial. But long-time friends there are choosing to be optimistic.

They used to say to Joe Wheaton and me on our annual visits, "Tell us something to give us hope." We'd mumble a few words about Nelson Mandela and about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that all felt lame.

The worst of these moments was nine years ago when a Burmese friend said, "Perhaps George W. Bush will come and overthrow our tyrants the way he did in Iraq." That's how desperate the Burmese were.

Now friends say they see a complicated but essentially brighter future. Western economic sanctions, the regime's fears of dominance by China and — most critically — the astute, resolute leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy led to honest elections in 2010 and again last year. Winner in two landslides, the NLD will actually take power April 1.

The pro-democracy movement didn't get everything it wanted and deserved. The constitution the generals approved reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament for the military. The army will continue to control defense and "national security." Cronies of the generals still run state and local governments. And Ms. Suu Kyi, whose children are British, is barred from being president. She'll have to govern indirectly, which could get tricky.

Sarong-clad pioneers

But hopes are high. Joe and I stopped in with two NLD organizers we know at the national headquarters on a sweltering Yangon day earlier this month. The place was just a simple open storefront on a dusty side street, but the atmosphere inside and spilling out onto the sidewalk was electric. Amidst the bustle were tables crowded with voluble men and women and makeshift signs with the ministries-to-be, education, health, and all the other categories of a civilized society that the military regime treated with indifference or contempt. Here were the sarong-clad Hamiltons, Madisons and Jeffersons of a smart, vigorous young government, and their Philadelphia was as open to the public as their administration plans on being.

The forces of reaction in Myanmar are great. U Myint Swe, the man the generals chose to be first vice president, is a notorious authoritarian and crook. NLD supporters hope he'll be relegated to ribbon-cutting ceremonies at highway overpasses.

And the NLD is going to have to renegotiate deals the old regime made with China that lets Myanmar's mighty northern neighbor continue to plunder the country's vast natural resources — natural gas, gems, timber, water. One good thing about the China connection is, some of the worst of the generals are now said to be moving there so they can be united with the money they stole from the destitute people of Myanmar.

People we know are philosophical about the military regime's ugly big finish. They are accepting the counsel of "Mother Suu" to be patient. Reforms won't happen overnight. They are hopeful that "The Lady" will unify the country by doing deals with the non-Burmese ethnic minorities that the generals mistreated and exploited. One of the multiple vice presidents chosen by the NLD is a Christian from Chin State. Right-wing Buddhist fanatics are already complaining about that.

It's rare in our complex world to see an actual struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil play out before our eyes. Myanmar is such a place, and good is doing amazingly well this month.

Richard Lipez is a writer who lives in Becket when he is not in Bangkok.


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