Who would have thought?
Two years ago, in the depths of despair and cynicism under the brutal 50-year reign of military dictatorship, no one could have imagined the changes under way in Burma today.
The pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is free and about to run for parliament. Her party, the National League for Democracy, is once again legal.
The new civilian president, former Gen. Thein Sein, has embraced Suu Kyi and said a “significant” government position awaits her if she is elected.
Suu Kyi has called the president a “good listener” and said she can work with him to further what she calls “the beginning of the beginning” of democracy.
The government has included Suu Kyi in conferences on reducing poverty and raising environmental awareness.
Political prisoners are being released, albeit too slowly for government critics and the international community.
Peace talks are under way to end the long-running wars against the country’s ethnic minorities.
Censorship has eased for the country’s independent newspapers.
The government has lifted its blockade on, and stopped vilifying, the exile news community: Radio Free Asia, the BBC, Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma, and numerous others.
Trade unions have been legalized.
The government, saying it was “listening to the people,” has suspended construction on a huge Chinese dam on the upper Irrawaddy River. (For the average Burmese, this was monumental.)
The president and government ministers have begun holding news conferences, an openness unheard of under the previous regime.
At least one high-level official has been fired for corruption in what the government promises to be a continuing crackdown.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited Burma, met with the president and Suu Kyi, and promised more American aid if positive change continues.
All this in a matter of months!
I’ve been visiting Burma since 2006 and have seen the mood swings: hope after the Saffron Revolution of 2007 that someone would come forward to lead another uprising; despair in 2008 when it didn’t happen; despondency in 2009 when it seemed the repression and corruption would never end; and cynicism in 2010 when rigged elections put in place a civilian government dominated by former generals (“Same wine, new bottle”).
Now the old feelings of fear and despair are slowly turning to hope tinged with skepticism.
“The attitude of the government has changed,” a friend with high-level connections told me. “We can’t expect Western-style democracy to happen in a few months. We have to be patient. But it is obvious things are changing. It is definitely the beginning of something serious.”
More than one commentator is calling this a “tipping point” in Burma’s history.
“Be cautious about jumping to conclusions,” another friend, a newspaper editor, warned. “There are hardliners waiting in the wings. If change happens too fast for them, they could make trouble.”
Yet on the streets of Rangoon and other major cities, the change is visible, audible, and palpable.
Visible in vendors on the streets selling posters and even key chains emblazoned with the picture of Suu Kyi and her father, Aung San, the father of modern-day Burma.
“They would have been arrested a year ago,” a guide friend told me.
Audible in a tea shop where a customer is hunched over his portable radio listening to the news from the BBC Burmese service, another formerly punishable offense.
“Turn it up!” another customer tells him. He does, with a smile.
Palpable in what friends call a new, friendlier attitude from the police. I watched a woman street vendor shouting at a policeman for a perceived wrong. He backed off. Another policeman returned my smile, something that’s never happened to me before.
And the fear of being seen speaking with foreigners seems to be gone. The owner of an eyeglass shop grabbed me on the sidewalk to talk politics. A tea shop owner offered me his opinions. All this without glancing over their shoulders to see if anyone was listening.
This is not to say that poverty has magically disappeared, that human rights abuses aren’t continuing, that the army has stopped its brutality against ethnic minorities along the borders, that corruption has vanished, that the eavesdropping is gone, or that people and reporters aren’t being hassled, threatened or jailed.
Journalists trying to cover the recent floods in Pakokku, where 200 were dead, had their equipment confiscated and names taken before they were roughly chased off.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s office is still under round-the-clock surveillance by intelligence agents in the tea shop across the street. They videotape everyone who visits there. An editor friend offered to introduce me to Suu Kyi but then warned me it might not be a good idea if I wanted to get another visa. I declined.
“Fifty years of repression, mismanagement and corruption aren’t going to be reversed overnight,” a political commentator said. “But good things are starting to happen.”
People in rural areas I visited haven’t seen much of the change being talked up in the big cities. In the Irrawaddy Delta, the diminishing rice crop is more important; in Nyaung Shwe, it’s the flooding from heavy rain; in Sittwe, rising electricity costs from a new municipal generator.
So far, the army, Burma’s most powerful institution, has stayed out of the politics of change, at least publicly. My friend with good government connections says the army supports President Thein Sein, for now. He expects the handful of hardliners in the government to be slowly phased out, one by one.
Whatever happens, ordinary Burmese like the new direction. All my friends say there can be no turning back.
In a bit of hyperbole that reflects the general mood, a friend in Bagan told me this:
“If the generals come back,” he said, “there will be war.”
Tyler Chapman is a regular contributor to Radio Free Asia website.