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Signs Of Change In Myanmar

NEAL CONAN, host: After decades of sometimes brutal military rule, there have been recent signs of change in Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. After almost two decades under house arrest, Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and meets regularly with representatives of the new civilian government - which, last month, released hundreds of political prisoners. But hundreds more remain behind bars. That new government is run by a former general, and foreign journalists are still not welcome.

If you have questions about winds of change in Myanmar, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. A longtime NPR journalist just returned from one of several trips to Myanmar. To protect his ability to report, we are not going to identify him by name, though. He joins us on phone - the phone from Bangkok, in neighboring Thailand. And thanks - did you get up early or stay up late?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I got up early.

CONAN: Give us an idea of what we're talking about when we mention change in Myanmar, a place that has not changed very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, I've made two trips there in the past six months. The first was shortly after the November elections, and the second was just a few weeks ago. And during the first trip, everyone I met was completely dismissive of the elections and the new government. They called it old wine in a new bottle, meaning the military was simply putting a civilian face on its authority. This time around, though, the atmosphere was very different. And a great deal of that, I think, had to do with the president's decision last month to suspend a major dam project on the Irrawaddy River - much to the chagrin of neighboring China, which was building

and paying for the dam, and which stood to reap the electricity generated by it.

CONAN: And what was the reason for rejecting this dam project?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, the new president, Thein Sein, he's a former general, reportedly tight with the military's longtime leader. And his abrupt decision to halt construction delighted many of his countrymen and environmentalists and opposition activists, all of whom were bitterly opposed to this project, which they said threatened the health and the economic viability of the river. He said that he's suspended construction because the dam went against the will of the people. And that's not something you hear too often in Myanmar - not in the last couple of decades, anyway.

So it was a brilliant PR move. I'm not sure if he meant it, or whether he was just trying to send a message to the Chinese that they don't get their way all the time, but it won an extraordinary amount of goodwill on the part of the people.

CONAN: The decision to release some political prisoners - this was a place that until recently, did not even acknowledge that there were political prisoners.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's right, although you have to be careful here. I mean, there's an estimated 2,000 political prisoners being held in Myanmar's jails. So the release last month of a few hundred was welcomed cautiously by many in the opposition and in the international community, but they want to see more action on that. But here's an interesting thing: The new government has appointed a human rights commission, a new human rights commission. It's never happened before. And they have called for the release of prisoners of conscience. Now, before, Myanmar didn't even admit that it had political prisoners. So that's another sign of progress.

CONAN: And you mentioned the elections that many people regarded as a sham, in no small part because the party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi did not participate. They said this was a sham. They would not participate. Have they decided to participate in politics?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think that remains to be seen. I think that the new government right now very much wants Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy back in the political fold, back in the political process. And, you know, this is kind of ironic, too, because she was a pariah for decades. And they didn't want to see her. They didn't want to talk to her. They didn't want to have anything to do with her. But now, I think they want her in government because - or as part of the political process because it would lend the regime some political credibility. Now, she is undecided whether she wants to return. She's undecided about whether she wants to lend the military government that measure of credibility. And I think she's going to ask for something in return.

CONAN: And what that - what might that be?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I can't say a hundred percent, but my best guess is that she will ask for the release of the majority, if not all, the remaining political prisoners in the country. I mean, this has been one of the major stumbling blocks with the West. This has one have been - this has been one of her major demands all along. She has been very uncompromising on this particular issue, and I think that's probably the quid pro quo here. I think she will demand that the government actually release more prisoners before she decides to participate in the political process. That's just a guess, but that's what I think we'll have.

CONAN: Before we get too carried away by winds of change, it's important to note that a journalist there was just issued a long sentence for coverage. What is the media like? Are they allowed to operate freely?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, that's another one of the things that actually has been changing a great deal since the new government took office. I mean, Myanmar used to be - it used to run a close second to North Korea, in terms of how tightly it controlled the press - and the Internet, too. But since President Thein Sein took office in March, those restrictions have been eased dramatically. And the local press is actually having a field day. It's putting things in the front pages that it wouldn't have dreamed of before, like the opposition to the dam, like complaints about the government, like the release of political prisoners.

And this, to me, was even more shocking, Neal. When I stopped at a local newsstand, I saw a business magazine called - appropriately enough - "The Future." And on the cover was a full-page photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, and a lengthy interview inside, and that never would have happened just a few months ago, not unless the publisher wanted to go to jail.

CONAN: And what of the previous regime, the generals? They are, presumably, watching with great interest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Presumably watching with great interest, but the generals who used to run things have now excused themselves from the political stage. You don't see or hear anything about them in the local press anymore. It's like they never existed. And this has some skeptics and some other people, some paranoid people - and you know, given the history of Myanmar, you wouldn't be surprised if there are a lot of paranoid people there - this has some people wondering if the generals are still very much in the picture, calling the shots. And that - these people say that President Thein Sein is basically a puppet and that former supreme leader, Senior General Than Shwe, is still the one really calling the shots, and all of this is just a smokescreen for the military trying to find a different way to stay in power indefinitely, and avoid having what happened in Egypt or Libya happen to them as well.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Kim(ph) is on the line. Kim is calling us from Buffalo.

KIM: Hi, Neal. Thank you for taking my call. I'm an English-as-a-second-language teacher. And in Buffalo, we have a very large Karen and Kareni population coming from Burma. And I was wondering how the government is viewing the conflicts with the ethnic minorities. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks.

CONAN: Did you hear the question?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I did hear the question. And I think the government's response is a bit contradictory. I mean, there is still a great deal of fighting going on right now between Myanmar's military and many of these ethnic groups, these ethnic militias that don't accept the central government's rule. On the other hand, the new president has called for peace talks with some of these groups so hopefully, those will lead to some sort of peaceful resolution. That's something that Aung San Suu Kyi has encouraged. And we'll see what happens.

CONAN: Let's go next to Doug(ph), and Doug is with us from Charlotte.

DOUG: Hey. When I was in college in the early '90s, there was a campus-wide movement to boycott Pepsi-Cola because of their political activities in Burma. And shortly after that, Burma changed its name to Myanmar and that kind of thing went under the rug. I was just wondering if PepsiCo is still largely involved there, and if they're known to have any political influence.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's not too many U.S. companies or, for that matter, international Western companies that have a very big presence in Myanmar because of the sanctions that are in place - been put in place by the U.S. and by the EU and others. Most of the businesses that are involved - there are Asian businesses, Chinese businesses, Singaporean businesses, Thai businesses. But there are a lot of people who are now saying that, you know, now that there seems to be signs of progress, that maybe some thought should be given to lifting these sanctions and allowing some more companies to move in; and to encourage change that way rather than just, you know, leave the whole thing there for the Chinese and for others to take.

CONAN: You mentioned the dam project earlier, which was canceled. There are, of course, other hydroelectric projects going on in the north end part of the country. There were some resentment, as I understand it, that all of the workers in this project were Chinese. And you mentioned Chinese businesses. There is some resentment, as I understand it, of the Chinese influence in Myanmar.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not just some; there's huge resentment. I mean, there are - many, many Burmese will tell you that they feel like China is simply taking over their country and that in 10 years, they're going to wake up and Burma - that Myanmar is going to be just another province of China. And this resentment, I think, may have played some part in President Thein Sein's decision to stop the dam - because not everyone likes this very cozy relationship that Myanmar's military government has with the Chinese. I mean, it - but it's the only one that the government has at this point, since the West and other countries have basically shunned Myanmar for it's, you know, horrible human rights record, and for the way it keeps its people down.

CONAN: You mentioned cautious optimism. Among those probably to be included in that camp, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Is the United States considering lifting any of these sanctions that you mentioned?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think the U.S. is following developments in Myanmar very carefully. I know that senior administration officials have been making - senior State Department officials have been making regular trips to Myanmar in the past few months. And I think that's no accident. I think that the U.S. government recognizes that change is happening, and that the U.S. is trying to calibrate its - to formulate what its response to those changes will be. But as I said before, I think, you know, we can talk about all these changes, but the key change will be the release of political prisoners. I think that's the thing. If that happens, I think that'll be the key that unlocks the door to easing of sanctions by the U.S. and by the EU, and other confidence-building measures.

CONAN: Would those changes be predicated on Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to provide that credibility, the legitimacy the government so craves?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think they're inseparable. I think that if Aung San Suu Kyi does not decide to take part in Parliament - does not decide to take part in the political process, then I don't think that you'll see the West actually respond in any meaningful way, in terms of lifting sanctions, without her say-so. I mean, she has been the conscience of the opposition and of the nation for decades now. And her moral voice is very, very strong not just within the country but outside of the country as well, I think. And without her green-lighting the lifting of sanctions, I don't think it happens.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. And again, thanks for getting up early.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're quite welcome. My pleasure.

CONAN: That was a journalist in Bangkok, recently back from a trip to Myanmar. Again, we're not identifying him by name to protect his ability to report from that country, where foreign journalists are generally not welcome. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.