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

    Vietnam Urges US to Lift Lethal Weapons Ban Amid S. China Sea Tensions

    US president’s upcoming visit to Vietnam underscores strength of relationship, and lifting embargo would reflect that trust, ambassador says

    Are US Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Radical Qatari Preachers?

    Parade of radical Islamist clerics using mosque at Qatar’s Education City draws mounting criticism for American universities that maintain satellite branches there

    Why Islamic State Is Down But Not Out

    Despite loss of territory, group’s ferocious attacks over past three months seen as testimony to its continued durability and resourcefulness

    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.
    Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroadi
    X
    May 02, 2016 1:36 PM
    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora