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In Myanmar, A Wary Welcome For Signs Of Change

The government of Myanmar bars or severely restricts reporting by foreign correspondents. NPR is withholding the name of the veteran journalist who recently entered the country and filed this story, in order to protect his identity and his ability to return in the future.

In Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, not far from the Sule Pagoda, a blind busker literally sings for her supper on a recent day. A scrawny young girl sits at her feet, keeping an eye on the begging bowl. As throngs of people hurry by, the singer's hips swing almost imperceptibly to her simple beat.

Myanmar's masses have long remained destitute, desperate and disenfranchised — as the country's repressive generals and their cronies have grown rich exploiting the country's vast mineral and energy wealth. Those who disagreed with the government faced harsh prison terms — or worse.

But the new government installed by the military in March appears to be cleaning up its act. The Southeast Asian nation is showing signs it wants to end its international pariah status — and the world is paying attention.

U.S. officials have made several trips to the country in recent months, and Myanmar's foreign minister has made a rare visit to Washington, as the new government insists it's sincere about reform.

Changes 'In The Interests Of The People'

A few years ago, the generals approved a massive Chinese-financed dam near the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, just upstream from where on a recent day women use the mocha-colored water to beat their clothes clean, brush their teeth and bathe.

Others, like some people farther downstream, depend on the river for transportation, fish and agriculture. During British colonial times, the Irrawaddy Delta was called the breadbasket of Southeast Asia. The new dam, opponents argued, threatened all this, but the military went ahead anyway.

Then, last month, the new president — Thein Sein, a former general — abruptly suspended construction, saying the dam was not "in the interests of the people." The decision angered the Chinese government, but drew rare praise from environmentalists, Western governments and the people of Myanmar.

"That's a good thing because people were very, very angry, so they stop it now," says Yangon businessman Tin Win, whose name has been changed to protect his safety.

Tin Win says he was surprised by that decision and others made by the new government.

"Now, we can see it's changing, [it's] a little bit better than before," he says. "Before, whatever they want, they can do. Now, no, they can't do."

A Freer Media?

President Thein Sein says he wants a better, more transparent government. And one of the ways he's trying to achieve that is by loosening the military's vise-like grip on Myanmar's media and access to the Internet.

In central Yangon, newspaper vendors sell just about anything that's published in the country. With more press freedom, journalists are starting to write more about what they want without fear of reprisal from the government.

On a recent day, the headlines of most newspapers trumpet the release of the famous political prisoner and comedian Zarganar, who was sentenced two years ago to 35 years in prison for criticizing the military's response to Typhoon Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people in 2008.

Outside Mandalay, ordinary people crowd onto the most common form of transportation in Myanmar — private bus.
/ Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Outside Mandalay, ordinary people crowd onto the most common form of transportation in Myanmar — private bus.

Even more striking is a business magazine called The Future, which has a full-page photo of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on its cover and, inside, a lengthy interview with her. In August, the new president actually met with the Nobel laureate — something his predecessor refused to do.

None of this would have been possible just a few months ago. Another Yangon resident, Aung Lay, says it's all welcome — but it's just a beginning. The next step, he says, is for the government to release all political prisoners.

Caution is to be expected from a people long accustomed to living under the boot of the military. But releasing the estimated 2,000 political prisoners now languishing in prison would win over many skeptical of the government's sincerity.

So far, it hasn't happened. But it's being discussed openly in parliament, in the press and in government. Just a few months ago, the regime didn't even admit it had political prisoners, only "criminals."

Many Fear Reforms Are Cosmetic

All these recent changes have prompted some longtime critics of Myanmar's military to start talking about lifting sanctions as a way of encouraging more reform and of easing the country's economic and political dependence on neighboring China. Still, not everyone's convinced.

In largely Buddhist Myanmar, monks occupy a revered position in society and have often led anti-government protests. Here, monks walk along the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, a former capital located just outside Mandalay.
/ Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
In largely Buddhist Myanmar, monks occupy a revered position in society and have often led anti-government protests. Here, monks walk along the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, a former capital located just outside Mandalay.

In the city of Mandalay, a snake charmer performs for a large crowd of people on the day of the full moon last month. The children in the crowd are visibly delighted. The faces of the adults are more wary.

In Mandalay, Yangon, and all over the country, many fear the recent political and economic reforms are a trick. They also fear that the president is merely a puppet of the same repressive military leadership that even now continues to carry out a brutal anti-insurgency campaign against the country's ethnic minority militias. It's the military that is still the real power constitutionally.

The changes, the skeptics fear, are merely cosmetic, aimed at duping the people and allowing the military to remain in charge and to keep what's happened in Egypt and Libya from happening here.

"They don't want to change, that's why they always thinking how to solve the problem," says Yangon businessman Tin Win. "They always find out a way. They are not so stupid. They are smart, but they are smart in [a] bad way."

These changes, some argue, are just a way to release a little steam, to give people's anger an outlet, in order, ultimately, to preserve the government's power.

But for all the people's suspicion and mistrust, consider this: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — long demonized by a military that kept her in detention for most of the past two decades — has said she believes President Thein Sein is sincere. She is even considering running for a seat in parliament later this year after she and her party boycotted last year's elections, calling them rigged. Her cautious optimism — and her apparent willingness to engage — may be the most telling sign that Myanmar is changing.

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