Burma showing signs of reforms

When Eleven Media Group sent a photographer to take pictures of flooding in central Burma last year, police suspected subversion and detained the journalist for three days.

This week, the Rangoon-based publisher printed not only photos of buildings submerged by yet another round of floods but also the picture and words of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and two other veteran foes of the government.

Burma’s political “weather is changing,” said Than Htut Aung, Eleven Media’s chairman, who, like many others here, believes that for the first time in decades, one of the world’s most repressive states is serious about reforming its autocratic ways.

In recent days, Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city, has swirled with unconfirmed reports that a new government installed in March is about to release possibly hundreds of jailed political prisoners. The inmates range from dissident writers and veteran democracy campaigners to purged military insiders such as reform-minded intelligence officers ousted in 2004.

“I think the change is real, or it should be real. We have to push to make it a reality,” said Eleven Media’s chairman, a former student activist who controls four weekly journals.

Whether Burma, also known as Myanmar, really is set on new course is a question now stirring excited and also anxious debate not only here in Rangoon but also in Washington, where officials are discussing whether to add some carrots to a policy previously focused on promoting change through economic sanctions and other sticks.

When Burma got a new president, former military commander Thein Sein, in March even optimists didn’t expect much, if anything, to change. The new leader -- a longtime ally of now retired but still feared military strongman Senior Gen. Than Shwe -- took office after an election widely dismissed as a fraud designed to solidify the military’s grip.

Since then, however, overtures to Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and standard-bearer of Burma’s resistance to autocracy, a raft of new legislation and a general easing of previously harsh controls on public discourse have surprised even critics of Burma’s government and also Western diplomats.

The biggest surprise came last week when the president, in a letter to parliament, announced he was halting a hugely unpopular Chinese-financed dam project on the Irrawaddy River. The government, said the president, “is elected by the people and has to respect the people’s will” -- a novel departure in a country where, since a military coup in 1962, governments have either ignored the people or, as happened when citizens took to the street in protest in 1988 and 2007, silenced them with gunfire and mass arrests.

Eleven Media played a leading role in voicing public opposition to the dam and stoking nationalist fury at China’s growing economic clout in Burma. “Our country is in danger of becoming a satellite state of China,” said Than Htut Aung, the chairman.

The new government, or at least elements of a still largely opaque leadership, apparently agree: Official censors have allowed unusually frank discussion of deals struck with China under Than Shwe, who ruled from 1992 until this year.

The recent suspension of China’s dam venture, said Kyaw Thu, a civil society activist, marks “a watershed between two stories -- between an old story of military dictatorship and a new story of democracy.”

‘It is time’

Under U.S. and European sanctions for more than a decade, the impoverished Southeast Asian nation is now desperate for rapprochement with the West, seen as a counterweight to the influence of authoritarian China.

“It is time for the U.S. and Western countries to show support for the government,” Kyaw Thu said. Sanctions, he added, should be “reconsidered.”

Burma remains far from free. The Press Scrutiny Department, the government’s censorship agency, for example, still vets pre-publication copies of all journals that touch on politics and axes articles and images it doesn’t like with a big X in red ink. Nine of 15 cartoons in the most recent issue of a news weekly published by Eleven Media got X-ed, though most of the articles escaped unscathed.

Many topics, particularly the corruption of senior generals and their cronies, remain taboo and the modest opening hasn’t erased decades of suspicion and fear. A prominent writer who asked not to be named described the change as “landscaping.”

Win Tin, a former political prisoner and founding member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, dismissed the new government’s shift so far as cosmetic. “There is no tangible change,” said the 80-year-old opposition stalwart. That, he said, will come only when the government frees all political prisoners.

Burma’s leaders for years denied even the existence of political prisoners. The new government has acknowledged them and made plans for a possible release.

Win Tin, who himself spent 19 years in jail, still wears a blue prison jacket and vows not to take it off until Burma’s jails are empty of political detainees, who are variously estimated to number between 600 and more than 2,000.

Buying and selling

Many of the changes initiated under President Thein Sein simply acknowledge long-established but previously outlawed facts. Thanks to the opening this month of a state-sanctioned currency exchange, for example, citizens in Rangoon, also known as Yangon, can now buy and sell U.S. dollars without fear of arrest -- instead of having to rely on technically illegal but nonetheless widespread money-changers.

The government has also stopped trying deny the central role of Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest late last year and, since March, has held a series of meetings with senior officials. President Thein Sein received her as an honored guest in the country’s new capital, Naypyidaw, a remote, grandiose and heavily policed town hacked from the forest by the previous military junta.

In a recent interview with the BBC’s Burmese-language service, Suu Kyi said “we are beginning to see the beginning of change” but added that it is too early to judge where this will lead. “I’d like to see a few more turns before I decide whether or not the wheels are moving along,” she said.

A new law allowing trade unions was passed in September and other legislation permitting protests, albeit highly restricted ones, is due soon. The government has also set up a Human Rights Commission, though it is not yet clear what it will do.

Restrictions on the Internet meanwhile have also been relaxed, meaning that sites such You Tube, CNN and the BBC’s Burmese service are no longer blocked. Erratic, snail-speed connections still make surfing the Web difficult.

Print media censors haven’t yet given up their red felt-tip pens but, according to editors, use them more sparingly. Photographs of stalwart foes of the regime are no longer banned.

But Win Tin, the former political prisoner, said it makes no real difference that a small photo of himself appeared this week in Weekly Eleven News, along with pictures of Suu Kyi and another democracy campaigner. Authorities, he said, “want to show they are changing, but allowing my picture to be published is not real change.”

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