Hope, Anxiety, and Life in a Changing Burma

Most Burmese political activists have a story of how and when disillusionment -- or sheer frustration -- with the old system first set in. For Dr. Myo Aung, the moment came after his graduation from medical school in 1976, when he was conscripted into the army to work as a field medic. During his service, he tended to the dead and dying on Burma's Eastern Front -- the hilly Thai border country occupied by the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic insurgency that has been battling for autonomy since the country's independence in 1948.

Whether it was the carnage of the Karen conflict that made an activist out of him, or his later expulsion from his job as a civilian doctor, apparently for holding unsuitable political views, he did not say. But, in 1995, Myo Aung joined the NLD, which became a sanctuary for pro-democracy activists after the failed 1988 uprising. The 63-year-old now serves as the party secretary for Rangoon Division and also offers free medical care to the dozens of party volunteers that arrive each day at the NLD's city headquarters.

Given his past run-ins with the junta, Myo Aung is surprisingly upbeat about his country's democratic progress, describing Thein Sein as "quite clean and honest" compared to his old military colleagues. "I not only hope -- I am quite sure that the political situation is changing," he told me at the NLD's crowded office, where large portraits of the Lady share wall space with her famous father, independence hero Aung San.

Many other Burmese, however, are reluctant to abandon their long and finely honed skepticism, or the inclination to sniff out ulterior motives. Many see the recent moves as Burma's chance to shrug off its international pariah status and encourage foreign investment; democratic reform, they say, is merely a means to an end.

"Their motive is not to be a democratic establishment, just to maintain their power," said Maung Wuntha, the editor of the outspoken People's Age Journal, who spent much of the 1990s in and out of prison due to his political work with the NLD. Even "Soe", the former monk enthusiastic about his new freedom, told me he thought the government was "pretending" in order to attract investment dollars. "This government wants to develop the economy," another Rangoon-based journalist said, "and at the same time they want to be on the winning side in politics."

The Democracy Report Even if one assumes the government has good motives in their opening, the country still faces some colossal challenges. Psychologically, neoclassical Rangoon remains a long way from the country's troubled periphery, a semi-lawless zone of ethnic conflict and rampant rights abuses where "reform" remains almost a foreign concept. Though the government this month signed a ceasefire with the KNU, raising hopes of an end to the six-decade-long conflict, fighting continues to flare up between the Burmese army and ethnic Kachin insurgents in the north, displacing thousands of villagers over the border into China. Then there's the economy, warped and distorted by decades of military oligarchy and Soviet-grade mismanagement. Reforming the economy -- and addressing potential future challenges from the rich, military-linked elite that grew fat off the old system -- will likely take many years. All providing, of course, there is no lurch backward in the meantime.

Whatever their initial motives, it's still hard to discern the government's end-game. Everybody in the new system is "thinking about the future in different ways," said Thant Myint-U, author and grandson of former UN Secretary General U Thant. "I don't think there is an ultimate vision, and there's certainly not an ultimate vision on which there is consensus."

Still, even many skeptics remain optimistic that by raising local and outside expectations, the reforms might become impossible to reverse, pushing the government faster and further than it intends to go. There are already signs of this, the journalist in Rangoon said, in the way once-gruff ex-military men in the new government are competing to ingratiate themselves among the public, or as the newly emboldened media is pushing the boundaries of censorship. Voters -- even the word itself seems out of place here -- will have their first chance to head to the polls on April 1, when 48 parliamentary seats will be up for grabs. The NLD is widely expected to sweep the election this time, but the reforms won't face a stiff test until the next general election in 2015. "I don't think they intend to turn backward," said Maung Wuntha. With peoples' sentiments as they currently are, "there would be no possibility."

Back in Naypyidaw, I met Monty Redmond, the British manager of the Zabu Thiri Hotel, a six-story concrete edifice that went up in a matter of months in 2010. Over drinks in his hotel's empty dining room, Redmond, who was born in Burma and returned in 1995, said that for the first time in years he is convinced things are on the right path. The Lady is free again, Western diplomats come and go, and hotels in Rangoon are packed with tourists and businessmen -- all signs that Burma's leaders finally "want to get rid of the old history." Whether this results in a true democratic outcome is uncertain, but for this long-suffering country the really remarkable thing is in the asking.

"Let's put it like this," Redmond said. "You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but what light, how big, how bright -- nobody can say at this point at time. But before there was complete darkness."

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Sebastian Strangio is an Australian journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His reporting from across Asia has appeared in Slate, Foreign Policy, The Economist, and other publications.

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