AT AN art gallery on a narrow street in a fashionable inner-city suburb, a slightly rumpled middle-aged man takes to the floor. Shaking with anger, he reads a poem from some handwritten notes to a small crowd of people, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Mobile phones and video cameras flash and whirr as he passionately calls on the government to abandon plans to dam a major river.
No, this isn’t Melbourne, Brisbane or Sydney. The late-September gathering at Gallery 65 in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, was the culmination of a series of civil society–organised events at which activists, politicians and artists urged the government to halt work on a 6000-megawatt dam at the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River, a site of great environmental and spiritual importance. Six days later, construction of the Chinese-backed dam was suspended for at least five years.
The decision, President Thein Sein told parliament in a statement on 30 September, was made out of respect for the “public’s desire” by “a government elected by the public.” It was the most definitive sign so far that Burma’s new government, which came to power on 30 March, is not the direct continuation of forty-eight years of military rule that many expected it to be.
In seven months, the government has taken a sharply different approach from its predecessor, the State Peace and Development Council. Censorship of the media has been relaxed, dialogue launched with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, civilian economic advisers appointed, and business and social organisations sounded out for advice on policy-making. Laws allowing peaceful protest and labour unions have also been approved, a poverty alleviation program initiated, Burmese abroad invited home, pensions raised, space for civil society groups increased, and several hundred political prisoners released.
The boldness of the government – and the president in particular – has caught many observers, including me, by surprise. Twelve months ago I encouraged many of my friends, family and colleagues to vote in Burma’s first general election in more than twenty years. When the polls closed on 7 November 2010, I watched election commission officials count ballots at a station in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township in the fading light of the cool season. The leader of one of the major opposition parties, Thu Wai, received the highest number of votes, but when the official, township-wide results were published, he’d lost to the military-backed candidate. Over the next few days, similar stories trickled in from around the country. I felt betrayed, and naive for having hoped that an election process so obviously flawed could usher in any sort of significant, positive change.
But that is precisely what has happened. And, most dramatically, many foes of the former regime – including Aung San Suu Kyi – are rolling the dice and throwing their support behind President Thein Sein and his government, seeing them as the best last chance to break Burma’s decades-old political deadlock.
THE MYITSONE dam decision was a watershed moment not just because the government responded directly to public sentiment. In one stroke it realigned and broadened Myanmar’s foreign policy.
In recent years China’s economic interests in Myanmar have soared, helped by Western sanctions and China’s offer of political protection in international fora, particularly the UN Security Council. Major investment contracts – mostly for energy and mining projects – lacked any semblance of transparency or independent oversight. The Myitsone dam looked like more of the same: it was the largest of seven hydro projects planned for the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy as part of a US$20 billion project, and the majority of the funds came from the state-owned China Power Investment Corporation. Ninety per cent of the power was to be exported to Yunnan Province, and hundreds of millions paid in broker fees to Burmese companies and former and serving members of government.
Western nations, including Australia, have for several years recognised the danger of allowing Burma to drift closer to China but have been hamstrung by counterproductive policies designed to isolate and punish the regime. The suspension of the dam sent a strong signal to both China and the West: Thein Sein wants Burma’s international relationships to be better balanced. Less than two weeks later, he made an official visit to India, where he was offered a US$500 million line of credit for infrastructure projects.
But what was most striking was the broad-based anti-dam movement that found its voice in the weeks leading up to the 30 September announcement. For the first time since the 1988 uprising, the many groups that make up Burma’s notoriously fractious opposition movement had come together on a single issue. The passionate “Save the Ayeyarwady” (Irrawaddy) campaign, launched in collaboration with Aung San Suu Kyi, generated widespread public support across ethnic, religious and political lines.
“I would like to encourage all to unite together for the sustainability of the Irrawaddy,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at the opening of the “Sketch of a River” exhibition on 22 September. “If we can pursue with unity one issue that we all believe in, there will be more unity on other issues.”
In the days after the announcement, China Power Investment’s president used Chinese state media to defend the Myitsone project, characterising the anti-dam campaign as the work of “Western NGOs.” “With the slogan of ‘protecting the benefits of the Myanmar people,’ these organisations are disturbing the Myanmar government to carry out economic project development to improve people’s livelihood,” Lu Qizhou was quoted as saying. “I don’t know what their real purposes are!” he added.
While some grassroots organisations did receive Western funding and technical support – as revealed in diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Rangoon released by WikiLeaks – there is little doubt that the anti-dam movement represented a coming of age for Burmese civil society, which had quietly established itself following the purge of the country’s military intelligence organisation in 2004. This campaign, which would never have been tolerated by the previous military regime, represented both a threat and an opportunity for President Thein Sein. Some saw potential for the movement to escalate if the dam issue was not resolved, raising the possibility of a military coup, which is permitted under the country’s controversial new constitution approved at a referendum in 2008. While it may have been this possibility that forced the president to act, the decision has nevertheless greatly increased the government’s credibility with the public. Once a military general, Thein Sein proved himself to be a shrewd politician.
“Although there are no surveys on this,” says Kyaw Thu, a journalist with the Reuters Institute who has covered Burmese politics extensively, “it’s quite clear President Thein Sein’s approval rating has been rising since he decided to suspend the Myitsone dam project… I am sure the majority of the population praises his decision. It also showed the government’s tolerance [of public criticism] and its willingness to listen to the voice of the people.” Or, as another Burmese journalist put it, “He took a risk to build trust, to build unity.”
Many, particularly in the vocal international activist community, still harbour suspicions about the government’s motivations. There is little doubt that at least some of the reforms, along with Burma’s quest to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014, are designed to secure legitimacy abroad. Burma desperately wants economic sanctions lifted to open up the country to Western investment, particularly from the United States and Europe, if only to counter China.
But the scepticism of many international pundits is strikingly absent in Rangoon. Here, a new air of openness is drawing many people into the political process, known as the “Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy,” which the military unveiled to such opprobrium in 2003. When the comedian Zarganar was released in an amnesty on 12 October, for instance, having served three years of a thirty-five-year sentence for criticising the government’s response to Cyclone Nargis, he labelled the president “stingy” for only freeing some 220 political prisoners. But later he told local media that he planned to dedicate himself mostly to politics, and in particular to search out and train young people to stand as candidates in future elections. “The parliament has come into being but we don’t have multi-party democracy… only one strong party has influence,” he said, in a reference to the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. “We have to fill the other half of the glass, to be a real democracy.”
While there is still a reluctance to become directly involved in politics, people are generally much more engaged than they were during last year’s election campaign. In the days after the amnesty, for example, most private news weeklies (the government continues to have a monopoly on the daily press) sold out as readers rushed to find out which political prisoners had been released.
This mood contrasts strikingly with the deep divisions of 2010 after Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, chose not to participate in the election. As a consequence, turnout in some constituencies was below 50 per cent, well down on the national average of 75 per cent.
“Expectations are higher,” says Khin Maung Swe, a founder of the National Democratic Force, which won sixteen seats in last year’s election. “People are closely watching the outcome of the discussions between Aung San Suu Kyi and the president. They expect good things are coming.”
IN A MODEST ground floor apartment in an outer suburb of Rangoon, Ba Htoo Maung flips through a small album of photos before proudly holding up a recent picture taken with Aung San Suu Kyi. He shows me another photo, black-and-white and grainy, of himself as an activist, chanting in front of Rangoon University.
Ba Htoo Maung hails from what is known as the 88 Generation, the university students who initiated the protests against Ne Win’s socialist regime in late 1987 and early 1988 that eventually toppled the government. The 88 Generation remains a powerful force in Burmese politics, and many of its key actors were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their role in the protests.
“In 1988, we were the ones who started to set the fire, tried to cause the problem,” he says. “But I can honestly say we didn’t even understand about democracy. We just knew we were dissatisfied.” He was caught in 1991 and jailed for eleven years, during which time he was shackled for 500 days for trying to send a letter to his sister.
Since his release almost ten years ago, he has shunned politics. He stayed at home during the 2007 protests, voted against the new constitution at the referendum in May 2008 and did not vote in the 2010 election. But following the meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein in August, he and some fellow activists initiated a political movement named simply Metta, after the Buddhist concept of loving kindness.
“Our country has many problems and since our independence we’ve been blaming each other for these. Where has this got us? I’ll tell you: nowhere,” he says. “I have suffered a great deal myself. But from these bitter experiences I realised that we cannot achieve what we want with hatred. We need a situation where everybody wins, including the military. They are our brothers as well.”
He sees successful dialogue between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi as crucial to the future of the country, and formed Metta precisely to support that process. “In Burmese we have a saying: if elephants go first through the dense jungle they can make a path for everyone else. The president and Aung San Suu Kyi are like two elephants. They need support though – our group aims to show support on behalf of the public and other activists.”
Ba Htoo Maung is not the only member of the opposition movement to have experienced a significant and dramatic change of heart. The tone of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches and statements, and of her comments in interviews with local and international media, has been markedly different from the first few months following her release in November 2010. She has been much more conciliatory – even going so far as to publicly praise the new president, saying she believes he is dedicated to reforming the country. In the process, she has won over those who argued she was too obstinate and had not pushed hard enough for dialogue.
“I used to think her strategy was too simple… she’s quite tough, stubborn,” a Burmese correspondent for an international broadcaster told me. “But after she met with the president and we were able to see the nature of their relationship, I became more confident in her ability to lead, more confident in her strategy. When the government started to change, she started to change as well.”
One important concession she has made is to distance herself from the 1990 election, which the NLD won in a landslide. “We are in fact not asking for a transfer of power as a lot of people seem to think,” Aung San Suu Kyi said last month. “That would not be practical.” An almost unthinkable prospect even six months ago, it now appears likely that the party will register for by-elections later this year, following several concessions from the government including changes to party registration laws.
Some argue, however, that Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation will further legitimise a process designed to entrench the military’s role in politics. Noting previous occasions when the regime signalled that it was loosening its grip, only to clamp down again, they point out that the positive steps made in recent months could easily be reversed.
LIKE Ba Htoo Maung, activist-turned-educator Myo Yan Naung Thein sees the past as a millstone around the country’s neck. “If you want to make a new start, a good start, we need to forget the past,” says the director of the Bayda Institute, a Rangoon-based civil society training centre. “If [President Thein Sein] is a real pro-change person, we don’t have to care whether he used to be a general or not.”
The Bayda Institute is my informal bellwether of political freedom in Rangoon; in the first six months after it was established in late 2010, it was forced to move three times because of pressure from local officials. But more recently it has been permitted to flourish, training hundreds of students, establishing a library – christened by Aung San Suu Kyi on 31 October – and opening a branch in Mandalay on 7 November.
Before our interview, I watched as Myo Yan Naung Thein conducted a class with a group of mostly middle-aged activists from central Burma, part of a five-day crash course covering civil society, the constitution and the current political situation. After he told them he wanted Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for parliament, one of the students, an NLD member elected in 1990, asked whether that meant the party would have to recognise the constitution, which gives 25 per cent of seats in parliament to the military.
“I explained to them that in every negotiation process we have to try and understand the other side’s interests, and we must make their interests our interests,” he told me. “Whatever worries them, we have to find out what it is and eliminate it. The military’s interest is to keep the constitution. It keeps them secure. In Burma we have personalised politics, not institutionalised politics. In that scenario, I would say the constitution does not matter a lot. We can change it when we have more power, when Aung San Suu Kyi is in the parliament.”
Does he have trouble convincing people that this particular batch of former generals is genuine about reform?
“Almost every person here inside Burma is fed up with poverty and conflict. They want to have a change, a new era… They are not resisting the change – they want it – but they dare not believe [it is happening],” he said. “But when we explain the process in detail, they believe it.”
THE SCALE of the challenge facing Burma’s government is, however, immense. The steps taken so far are significant but mostly symbolic. Questions remain about how serious the government is about reform and democratisation, given that real progress will undoubtedly hurt the material and political interests of the military and business establishment. Although the national legislatures in the capital are gradually exercising their powers, the military remains the dominant institution.
Nevertheless, the importance of the past seven months and the dramatic shift in sentiment should not be underestimated. Efforts to address more complex and deep-seated issues – making peace with ethnic armed groups, reforming the economy, making inroads into poverty, rebuilding the health and education systems and tackling corruption – are almost certain to fail unless the government has a wide cross-section of supporters.
“I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel; I feel we are finally approaching a period of peace,” says activist Sann Tin Kyaw, also a member of the 88 Generation. “Before, we couldn’t do anything political – or if we did it had to be in secret. Now we can hold ceremonies for former political prisoners, we can hold political meetings. There is much more media freedom. But the government still needs to go further, to release all the political prisoners as soon as possible, to stop fighting our ethnic brothers. They need to prove themselves with deeds – prove they are really different from the previous government.”
The government has hinted that political prisoners will be released in stages, and changes to laws to allow greater political freedom appear to be on the way. A labour organisation law has already been promulgated, while government-sponsored bills that would permit peaceful protests and change the way villages and wards are administered are currently being debated in parliament. Little is known about the contents of the draft bills but the latter, in particular, could improve the lives of millions of rural residents.
“Most of the villagers want to elect village administrators themselves,” says Kyaw Thu. “If the government gives rural populations the chance to elect administrators through a majority vote, rather than the current system of appointment by township or district authorities, they will actually believe that the government cares about them and is listening to their problems, and that will be a major step towards improving the credibility of the government.”
The country’s most significant challenge is the “ethnic issue” – the long-running hostility between the majority Burmese and the myriad ethnic minorities – and no resolution appears likely in the short term. “Trust building between both sides will be essential. The political parties that represent ethnic people could be requested to help in negotiation with the armed ethnic groups inside the country,” says Kyaw Thu.
It is unclear whether even Aung San Suu Kyi – who, like Thein Sein, is ethnic Burmese – can convince the ethnic armies to give up their struggle against Burma’s military. What is evident, though, is that since her release from house arrest on 13 November last year, Aung San Suu Kyi has resumed her position at the centre of Burmese politics. Her stature and ability to mobilise the population make her the country’s most valuable political asset, and all the people I spoke to emphasised the important role she will play in Burma’s future.
“Reconciliation is the key issue. The government has to embrace everyone, create an atmosphere of equality,” Khin Maung Swe, a former NLD member, told me. “If they really want internal peace, they will need to move forward with her.”
“People believe in her, people love her – not because they know what she is doing but because she is Aung San Suu Kyi… People are with her whatever she does,” agrees Myo Yan Naung Thein. “For example, we tell people to read more. But when she tells them to read, they really do it. We suggest to young people to start civil society organisations, but when she speaks out, suddenly there are CSOs everywhere. So she is very influential, both inside Burma and outside Burma.”
With her party unregistered, though, Aung San Suu Kyi is technically operating outside the law. The possibility remains that the government could crack down on the NLD again and place its leaders in prison or under house arrest. Yet this appears unlikely, at least while President Thein Sein remains in power.
“However much the government tries to change – politically, economically or socially – they are just soldiers. They can’t do it properly themselves,” the foreign correspondent told me over coffee at a trendy establishment beside Rangoon’s Inya Lake. “But if the president and Aung San Suu Kyi can work together, in harmony, they can implement the changes we need over the next few years. Actually, Aung San Suu Kyi needs the president and he needs her – it’s clear. Meeting her, it shows he is a flexible person – he is willing to do whatever is necessary.”
Did you ever expect you would be saying this, I asked, six or even three months ago?
“No way,” he laughed. “But this is our chance. We need to grab it.” •
The author is a Rangoon-based writer.