Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Can Burma Keep Pace With Itself?

The signs of reform in Burma are clear. But is the country changing too quickly – and will it be exploited by outsiders?

By William Lloyd-George for

“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”.

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.

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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.”

At the time of this reporter’s visit to Suu Kyi’s home, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird was visiting Suu Kyi. His visit follows that of British Foreign Secretary William Hague and, most symbolically, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Like Baird, they too also visited the president and their counterparts in Naypyidaw. Like the other foreign ministers, Baird told reporters he had a very promising chat with Thein Sein. “I am excited by their enthusiasm and support for a free, fair and transparent process,” Baird said.

The main question asked to Baird, Suu Kyi, and being asked all over the country, is when sanctions will be lifted. Suu Kyi has indicated that a free and fair election could allow for the beginning of the lifting of sanctions. She has already said that tourists are welcome to the country. For nearly twenty years she pushed for sanctions on tourism. Since being released, the number of tourists in the country has surged. Many of the hotels and flights are fully booked, leaving the tourist industry in shock.

“I’ve always wanted to come to Burma,” says Frank, a German tourist, as he takes a photo of the gate to Suu Kyi’s home, now a popular travel tour stop. “Now that Suu Kyi has been released, it seems like now is a good time to come.”

It’s not only tourists who are descending on Burma. Businessmen from across the world are filling up hotel lobbies and conference rooms. With talk of sanctions being lifted, opportunists from all sectors are circling Yangon like vultures eager to get their piece of the action. Sitting in Traders Hotel lobby, one of the most prestigious hotels in the city, one Swiss investor, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had come to “see what is on offer,” adding that, “now is the time to come, before Burma is all eaten up.”

This is a concern voiced my many Burmese and expats, who are worried the rush to invest in Burma will have negative effects on the somewhat fragile city and economy. “There’s no planning for all these reforms, they’re just all being done so quickly,” one Western diplomat says over a coffee. “It’s great that people will enjoy a better standard of life, but there’s also a real danger that the economy and infrastructure will just collapse.” He goes on to add that another concern is that with so many foreigners rushing to invest in various sectors, there may be little left for the Burmese at the end of the day. “It’s all going way to fast if you ask me,” he says.

For the first time in Yangon’s history there’s now traffic on the roads. A phenomenon its citizens had never seen until three months ago. The speculation of sanctions being lifted has also seen the property market skyrocket. As Burmese (and increasingly foreigners) rush to invest their money in land, prices have exceeded that of Bangkok. “It might be a fake market, but we can’t see the prices going down anytime soon,” an estate agent, or broker as they are locally called, tells The Diplomat.

And while Burmese and foreigners get excited about the prospect of sanctions being lifted, many of those who have been fighting the regime for so long feel it still isn’t time. Sandar Min, an NLD candidate, believes that a free and fair by-election can’t be a benchmark for sanctions being lifted. She argues that 48 seats aren’t significant enough for the government to be rewarded because there’s still very little the NLD can do, even if they win all of them. “The international community must wait until the 2015 elections when all the seats are open,” she says. “If the NLD can freely contest every seat, then we will know it’s time to lift sanctions”.

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Yet despite her caution, Sandar Min says she can feel the changes. Having spent the last five years in prison over her role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, only to be released in January this year, she says the people’s mindset is very different compared with when she entered prison. “The people aren’t scared anymore, before I went to prison everyone was so afraid,” she tells The Diplomat from her home in downtown Yangon. “Now they aren’t scared of anything, everywhere they can talk about politics and they don’t get arrested. Before, they would be arrested so easily for even talking about Suu Kyi. The people are so happy at the moment.”

Phyu Min Thein, who is also an NLD candidate for the by-election, echoes these sentiments. He says he spent 15 years in prison over his role as a leader during the 1988 uprising. In the lead up to the 2010 general elections, he decided to bow out, arguing that the conditions were neither free and fair. This time around he says the conditions are slightly better and that he hasn’t been disturbed on the campaign trail. But he still believes the international community should keep a close eye on the progress of the reforms.

“The situation is a little bit better, but we need to monitor the situation carefully,” he says. “Free and fair by-elections are only a small step in the right direction and 2015 will be the real test, whether the generals are interested in democracy and human rights, or not.”

The majority of people in Burma believe the by-elections will be free and fair, as the government has very little to lose by allowing 47 NLD members into parliament. Activists might argue that the government is using Suu Kyi and the NLD in order to gain support for its plans and to encourage people to forget the atrocities the generals have committed in the past. However, as the Burmese people enjoy freedom like never before, a sense of pride to be Burmese, and a belief the standard of living is set to rise, suggests now may be the time to embrace the by-elections as the next step towards a better Burma.

Either way, some remain cautious – even if democracy is finally dawning here. “I feel sorry my country,” says Aung Min, a businessman, when asked about the rush to Burma. “So long we have wanted democracy, but I know soon we will be regretting it.”

William Lloyd-George is a freelance journalist based on the Thai-Burma border. His work has appeared in TIME, The Independent, Bangkok Post, Afternposten, Irrawaddy and Global Post among others.