‘It’s a different city.’ So says Kyaw Lin says about the recent changes in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. ‘We’re not afraid to talk now, it’s like we’re finally seeing the light,’ he continues 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.
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, if not worse, by the secret police.
Since being released in November 2010, Suu Kyi has gone from house arrest to once again being a politician. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party has been allowed to contest the 1 April 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.
Freedom and reform
The changes aren’t limited to Suu Kyi’s freedom. The government has set about launching several economic reforms, which could see the Burmese currency, the kyat, 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). Media censorship also appears to be easing. And the government is attempting to achieve ceasefires with nearly all the ethnic armies, a huge development considering that less than a year ago they weren’t even talking to some of these groups.
The most visual change in Burma is that images of Aung San Suu Kyi are everywhere
Still, despite the progress, Suu Kyi has already announced irregularities in the lead up to the by-elections. 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. ‘We need to watch how the election commission responds to our complaints. They need to act, and quickly.’
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 20 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.
It’s not only tourists who are descending on Burma. Entrepreneurs from across the world are filling up hotel lobbies and conference rooms. With talk of sanctions being lifted, opportunists from all sectors are circling Rangoon 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’.
Danger of collapse
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.’
With talk of sanctions being lifted, opportunists from all sectors are circling Rangoon like vultures eager to get their piece of the action
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.’
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.’
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, 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 for my country,’ says entrepreneur Aung Min, when asked about the rush to Burma. ‘So long we have wanted democracy, but I know soon we will be regretting it.’