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.

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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.

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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.

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