We are looking for the opening to the road to democracy,’ said Aung San Suu Kyi during a frenetic press conference held in mid-November at the office of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to mark the first anniversary of her release from house arrest. That year has been quite dramatic itself: Suu Kyi’s image is now on newspapers and magazines near and far, the BBC is no longer forced to enter the country illegally, and Burma is set to chair the ASEAN regional bloc in 2014. Burma’s generals had famously claimed that they were aiming to institute a system of ‘discipline flourishing democracy’ in the country – a vague phrase that only ever seemed to suit the needs of the military. Today, amidst new optimism, few have any more concrete answers on what might be taking place.
The Burmese are not apathetic, but they tend to withhold definitive statements about the ‘reforms’ that have taken place in recent months under President Thein Sein. Like many, a taxi driver says that he thinks the president is ‘an honest man’, but he bemoans the fraudulent process by which Thein Sein came to power. Notes a teacher, ‘We hope things are moving, slow and steady – maybe.’ Such statements are a reflection of more than two decades having gone by with little hope for the future, but they also point to the fact that things might well now be changing – slowly, maybe. Walking around Burma today, it feels as though many people are unsure of where they stand – journalists in particular. ‘Journalists are still monitored by the secret police,’ says one news editor. But, still, reporters today are able to gather at a pavement bar and talk casually about politics (or rumour) in a way that would not have been possible a year ago. Internet access is also far freer today; hotels, for instance, would have earlier been forced to put up signs warning Internet users against viewing ‘political sites’.
In what some are viewing as one of the most significant hints of the changes to come, for the first time Rangoon is now host to public ATMs. At a bank in suburban Rangoon recently, a teller was guiding a young man on how to use a newly installed cash machine. Visa and Mastercard are not available yet, though one can only assume that their arrival too is on the horizon. ‘Until now we couldn’t attract much foreign direct investment, so in my point of view we need to take bold measures – not in our perception, but from the investors’ points of view – to attract foreign investment, not only from China and neighbouring countries but from elsewhere too,’ says Khin Maung Nyo, an economist and editor of the Workanomics journal.
Despite these flickers of change, the sense that Burma remains a country caught in a time warp is still palpable on the streets of Rangoon – a city that was once one of the continent’s most prosperous. The lack of recognisable brands and advertising speaks of an isolation that can at times be charming, at least for a traveller. For the young and upwardly mobile, on the other hand, the lure of Singapore, or even the West, is evident in the desire to learn English and in the tastes of a generation that has come of age with the dual influences of the Internet and a military dictatorship. These tastes were on proud display at a Buddhist full-moon festival in November. While traditional festivities took place at the spectacular Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, at nearby Kandwagyi Lake young people, many dressed like African-American rappers (includ-ing frizzing their hair) had gathered to watch performances by local hip-hop artists.
Free from fear
Greater difficulties remain in opening up other areas of artistic expression in Burma. The country’s cinema arguably came to life in the spectacular form of The Burmese Harp, a beautiful film from the 1950s about an errant Japanese soldier during the Second World War who poses as a Burmese monk in order to abscond. Today, despite the recent relaxations, this production would most likely not pass the censors, suggests producer Myo Zaw, as its themes of history, the army and politics remain strictly off limits. ‘There is really no change,’ says Myo Zaw, on the set of his latest film offering, 3-4, which also happens to be my debut on the silver screen.
3-4 is a slushy romantic comedy set in a school. Still acclimatising to the bright lights of the set and the lethargy of a sweltering Rangoon morning, I am introduced to a comedy stalwart of the Burmese screen, Pwint, a comically obese girl dressed in a tight-fitting bumblebee outfit. She stands in stark contrast to the other women in the cast, the majority of which come from a modelling agency. 3-4 takes its name from the Burmese numerals, which in Burmese script face opposite directions and have connotations similar to the Chinese yin and yang. Its distribution will be entirely on VCDs, as nearly all cinemas across the country are closed down due to the harsh economic reality; the romance of the cinema lives on and thrives in India and Bangladesh, but is lost in Burma. Still, VCDs of foreign films are screened publicly in tea shops and informal halls, where communities gather to watch whatever they can. British football is another crowd pleaser, and locals tend to gather in vast numbers in the few electrified premises available.
The government’s aesthetic, meanwhile, has stumbled from clumsy socialist-era posters calling on the people to ‘crush’ all those opposing the will of the army, to attempts at more subtle manipulation. As pioneering rapper Zayar Thaw describes, ‘In August we organised a charity show, but the government banned me. They didn’t ban me on paper; they didn’t tell me in person – they just told the organisers that they couldn’t hire me. So the situation today is a bit more complicated than before.’ Zayar Thaw was released from jail in May after serving nearly three years, ostensibly for having too much foreign currency but the implications being that the sentence was politically motivated. He grew famous with a band called Acid, but also describes himself as an activist and helped found an underground group, Generation Wave, that works on anti-establishment campaigns through graffiti, stickers and music.
For journals and newspapers, censorship has also changed. Papers are allowed to publish photographs of Suu Kyi and interviews with former political prisoners, though not discussions of the latter’s experiences in jail. Journalists are also still in jail; in September, a 21-year-old reporter named Sithu Zeya, working for the exile-run Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was given an additional 10 years on top of his eight-year sentence under the vague Electronics Act – even as DVB’s website was unblocked for the first time in many years.
Even as the government’s reforms process goes forward, the title of Suu Kyi’s famous essay (and later book), ‘Freedom from Fear’, remains apt as an expression of what the people desire. One evening, a local journalist’s phone rings, inciting frantic pacing. The police want to see him, he says, and he does not know why. Rushing off, he hands over his keys to some friends and leaves to start erasing anything incriminating from his life. It is only several torturous hours later that he realises he has been the target of a practical joke. It will take many more years – and a firm belief in the new reforms – before the people of Burma are truly free from fear.