For decades, the omnipresent gaze of Big Brother kept most of Burma’s people from speaking their minds in public. The country’s military regime had a sprawling network of intelligence agents and community informers to keep tabs on chatter in schools, markets, teashops and other gathering places and swoop in when people voiced criticism of the government. The autocratic rulers of Burma, also known as Myanmar, displayed an Orwellian intolerance of words and thoughts they deemed unharmonious with their law-and-order-obsessed vision. The regime erected billboards with slogans condemning – in no specific terms – elements threatening national unity, and various security acts banned the publication or broadcast of “incorrect ideas” and “opinions not according with the times.”
These conditions had a paralyzing effect. “People were very fearful, fearful to talk about politics and even their suffering,” says Maung Wun Tha, a Burmese journalist of nearly four decades. “They were thinking they were being watched. They saw many people were arrested and sent to jail.” Little more than a year ago, some 2,000 prisoners of conscience were behind bars in Burma’s squalid prisons, many having endured lengthy torture sessions in the time between their arrest and sentencing at a closed-door military court. Wun Tha himself was jailed on three occasions.
Yet, Wun Tha, whose real name is Soe Thein, is speaking openly today from the same streets that, just two years ago, would have turned on him for fielding questions from a foreign reporter. No one, including a traffic cop, seems bothered that he’s giving an interview while walking along a crowded street in the bustling capital, Rangoon. “Now, they don’t care and the people become very outspoken and [there is] less fear. So they dare to talk, even to the foreigners [and] foreign correspondents.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Greater tolerance for free speech is among the most tangible signs of the Southeast Asian country’s dramatic reform. Since a power handover last year from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government, Burma’s new regime has surprised people in and outside the country by giving substance to the structural change: hundreds of political prisoners were released; diplomatic overtures were made to the United Nations and influential member states; and controls on political association, civil society and the press were relaxed. And, perhaps of greatest symbolic significance of all, the new president reached out to pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who previous regimes harassed, denigrated and kept under house arrest for most of the past two decades.
After being banned from participating in electoral politics for over two decades, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party fielded candidates in parliamentary by-elections on April 1. The campaign period drew hordes of people to the streets to exercise their newfound right to show support for politicians outside the military clique, and capped off a steady stretch of liberalization that made confidence in the reform no longer seem misplaced. The NLD’s winning 43 of 45 seats confirmed the government’s pledge to recognize the election results. But Maung Wun Tha had cast his bet on better times a full year-and-and-half ago, when many observers believed the transition to civilian rule was largely a ploy for the junta to repair its pariah status – and, specifically, end Western sanctions – while still ruling through plainclothes proxies. At the end of 2010, he launched The People’s Age, a political journal that aggressively pushed the boundaries of what authorities would tolerate.