“It’s a different city,” Kyaw Lin, says about the recent changes in Yangon, the former capital of Burma. “We’re not afraid to talk now, it’s like we’re finally seeing the light,” he says as he finishes a cup of Chinese tea at a downtown teashop.
Like many of his generation, for most of his life 23-year-old Kyaw Lin was enraged by the regime’s mismanagement of the country. Slowly this rage faded, and he gradually gave up all hope of making a life in Burma, instead dreaming of a life abroad. “I was saving up to go to Singapore,” he says. “But with all these changes, I think I might stay here after all”.
Since coming to power through elections deemed neither free nor fair, President Thein Sein, a former general himself, has led a series of reforms, changes which have many inside Burma once again feeling proud of their country. “Before I felt ashamed to be part of this country,” Kyaw Lin says. “But with the reforms taking place, and the interest from foreigners again, we could be a leading Asian country”.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The most visual change in Burma is that images of Aung San Suu Kyi are everywhere. Posters are hung up on walls, she appears on front pages of newspapers, and most symbolic of progress, young and old walk the streets sporting Suu Kyi T-shirts. Just over a year ago, this would have led to harassment by the secret police, if not worse.
Since being released in November 2010, Suu Kyi has gone from house arrest to once again being a politician. Her party has been allowed to contest the April 1 by-elections, and Suu Kyi herself will be competing for one of the 48 seats up for grabs. In the lead up to the vote, she has toured the country, even being allowed to hold a rally in Nay Pyi Daw, which for a long time was the regime’s hideaway capital.
The changes aren’t limited to Suu Kyi’s freedom. The government has set about launching several economic reforms, which could see the Burmese Kyatt being fully floated soon, and foreign investment allowed without Burmese partnership – made even more enticing by five-year tax-free incentives.
Most encouraging was the release of more than 600 political prisoners in January (although according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thai-Based NGO monitoring the situation for the last 10 years, over 800 remain behind bars). Also, media censorship appears to be easing. And the government is attempting to achieve ceasefires with nearly all the ethnic armies, a huge development considering under a year ago they weren’t even talking to some of these groups.
Still, despite the progress, Suu Kyi has already announced irregularities in the lead up to the by-elections. Speaking at her crumbing lakeside mansion, she says that her party is still facing restrictions over where members can rally. And, without going into details, she says that the government party, the USDP, has been enjoying unfair advantages. She also says that they have noticed that there are dead people on the voting list. “There are many people scheduled to vote on April 1 and we simply can’t have that,” she says, adding that they have taken it up with the election commission. “We need to watch how the election commission responds to our complaints. They need to act, and quickly, after all, we only have three and a half weeks left.”