News / Asia

Burma’s Year of Change Raises Hopes

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) greets visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following their meeting at Suu Kyi's residence in Rangoon, December 2, 2011.
Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) greets visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following their meeting at Suu Kyi's residence in Rangoon, December 2, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio

Burma’s military-backed, but nominally civilian, government has surprised critics with its political and economic reforms this past year. The liberal moves resulted in a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December. During her trip, VOA’s Daniel Schearf spoke with residents of the main city, Rangoon, about what they think of the changes, so far.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s December visit to Burma was both a reward and encouragement for authorities after a year of unexpected reforms.

President Thein Sein, despite being a former general, is slowly moving away from decades of military rule and economic problems.

Although still made up of former officers, his government ordered the release of hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and held separate talks with ethnic rebel groups and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Nobel Prize winner was released from 15 years of house arrest in 2010 and plans to run for parliament in next year's by-election.

Meeting with Clinton at the home where she was detained, Aung San Suu Kyi sounded optimistic about the direction of the country.

“This will be the beginning of a new future for all of us, provided we can maintain it. And, we hope to be able to do so,” she said.

Related video story

Burma was once the star of Southeast Asia but, much like Rangoon's British colonial-era buildings, crumbled under military rule. Just months ago most people in Burma were too afraid to talk openly about politics, especially to journalists, who are rarely allowed into the country.

But, since March, the new government's moves toward reform are encouraging some to speak up.

Riding past Rangoon’s colonial Customs House, trishaw driver Maung Than Zaw says, despite reform efforts, he can barely make ends meet. Things have not gotten better for ordinary people like him;  it is getting worse, he says, adding that is difficult to earn four or five dollars per day.

Rangoon fruit vendor Mi Mi Aye says she worries about being arrested, but still wants to criticize the so-called civilian government. She says nothing has changed, the new government is just the same people as before.

There are others who say the economy and the government are improving.

At the Golden Palace jewelry store, in Rangoon’s Chinatown, a crowd of shoppers press against a long glass display case, clamoring for attention from sales staff.

Owner Aung Kyaw Win has one of Burma’s most famous chains of gold and gem stores.  He says business is good and would be even better if European Union and U.S. sanctions were lifted.

“I think our government, economically, they are trying to change a lot. We are sincerely hoping, because we heard from the newspaper and we can able to see they are changing.”

The government is slowly reducing cumbersome regulations and monopolies that crippled the economy. One key step is unifying the exchange rate to curb corruption. The official rate is seven kyat to the dollar. The actual market rate is 100 times higher.

A money counting machine flips through a stack of Burma’s currency.  At this currency exchange center in Rangoon, U.S. dollars are traded for bricks of kyat.

Many in Burma, like Lwin Aung Zaw, are paid in American dollars, but they are not legally allowed to possess foreign currency without a permit and have to exchange their salaries every month or risk jail.

He says they can exchange foreign currency at these counters. But, according to the law, they are not legally allowed to have foreign money.  He believes it would be better if authorities changed this rule.

At a tea shop in Rangoon a young man rolls dough balls into thin pancakes, called roti, and fries them in oil.

Tea shops are a center of Rangoon social life, where people meet for a snack, but also to talk business and about how Burma is changing. Taxi driver Tint Lwin says, like most people, he is focused more on earning a living than politics.

He says he sees a lot of developments.  Because he is a taxi driver he can only comment from a driver’s point of view. The roads are getting better, he says, but they still have heavy traffic jams.

Retired civil servant Thaung Htwe says he hopes Clinton's visit will spur more reforms. He hopes that Burma will be developed more in the future.  And he  says by having good relations with the United States, they might see development in all sectors; economy, society, politics and so on.

Despite a more open environment, not everyone welcomes foreign journalists asking questions.

In a Rangoon market, an older man approaches VOA and demands we stop video taping, saying we need permission from local authorities.

“I don’t like it.  We don’t like it…Yeah, this [is] the poor area.  Not for news,” he says.  He recommends we go to a wealthier area to show how rich Burma is.

But locals in the market argue back that they are poor.

Although hopes are raised that Burma's economy may revive and the country may finally turn the corner to democracy the road ahead is still uncertain. Rights groups point out military abuses continue in ethnic areas, including murder and rape.

And, despite reforms so far, there are still hundreds of political prisoners behind bars which authorities have yet to acknowledge.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs