Burma is a country on the brink of change. The military is relaxing its grip, democratic freedoms are beginning to emerge and as a result the sanctions that blighted the country and virtually cut it off from the rest of the world for two decades are lifting; foreign tourists and their much-needed money are trickling back.
After years of vicious dictatorship, imprisonment without trial, summary executions and ‘disappearances’, the military-backed Government, sequestered in its jungle capital of Naypyidaw, is beginning to understand, albeit reluctantly, that it cannot do without the rest of the world. Whatever the reasons, and they are probably numerous, the country is in the throes of reform. There have been false dawns before, most infamously in the ignored election result of 1990, but this time the momentum for change appears irresistible.
And long, long overdue. Yangon (once Rangoon, the former capital and today a teeming port city of four million) is desperately in need of outside investment, comparing unfavourably even with the Singapore I remember from my first visit there 40 years ago. At the time of its independence in 1948 resource-rich Burma was considered one of the newly-emerging South-East Asian nations most likely to succeed. Instead it became a backwater, forced into a time capsule after the military, under Ne Win, seized control from the admittedly ineffectual Government of U Nu in 1962.
The dictatorship that followed is a template for all the arguments against military rule. Ne Win was self-obsessed to the point of paranoia, constantly fearing assassination, using voodoo-style ceremonies and incantations to keep himself safe and with an irrational fear of dogs to the point that his progress around the country was preceded by a detachment of soldiers with orders to shoot all stray dogs on sight.
He proclaimed a program called ‘The Burmese Way to Socialism’, which Burmese watcher and historian Justin Wintle describes as actually being nothing more than a home-grown brand of fascism.
“Ne Win had no interest in reconciliation with Burma’s minorities,” Wintel says. “His only answer to opposition was to crush it, and crush it savagely. As an example, when students from Rangoon National University launched a protest movement in the 1970s he outlawed the Students Union and destroyed its building.”
In the years before mobile phones and the internet, Ne Win’s attempts to isolate Burma from the rest of the world were largely successful, but the return to the country of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the revered and martyred architect of Burmese independence, Aung San, set in place changes that the ageing dictator could not control. He stepped down in 1988 but remained a shadowy power behind the scenes as military rule continued, and a key influence behind the decision to ignore the 1990 election result in which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won an overwhelming victory.
The multiple harassments and detentions of Suu Kyi and her supporters which followed evoked international outrage and sanctions that were the beginning of the end for dictatorship in Burma, although the time it has taken for it to be disbanded says something for the obstinacy of the generals who followed Ne Win, in particular Than Shwe, who had a virulent hatred for Suu Kyi. However, the new man at the helm, Thein Sein, more of a bureaucrat than a soldier, has lessened tensions. The National League for Democracy was allowed to contest by-elections in 2012 and Suu Kyi is now a Member of Parliament.
These changes, while welcome, are shallow. The Government may no longer be in the business of rounding up political prisoners, but it is in no hurry to free those jailed by its predecessors. While token releases have been going on – most notably to mark the visit of United States President Barack Obama in November - an unknown number, certainly in the hundreds and possibly thousands, remain behind bars, many languishing in terrible conditions. Those that do gain their freedom often face continued intimidation.
In an interview, one former prisoner, released after a decade in jail, said many people had shunned him for fear their contact would bring them to the notice of authorities.
“There is still a fear of the Government. It does not go away overnight,” he said.
The Government has also failed to act to prevent the violence that erupted in mid-year between Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslims in the remote Rakhine State, on the border with Bangladesh. The attacks, believed to have begun after the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman, have left more than 200 dead and an estimated 115,000 displaced.
The name ‘Burma’ has been used throughout this article rather than ‘Myanmar’, which is the country’s official name and the one recognised by Australia. However, many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, still use ‘Burma’ in official documents and it is the name favoured by Aung San Suu Kyi. It is therefore likely the country will revert to being called Burma should she become leader.