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On the Streets of Burma, Little Hope for Change

Myanmar Daily Life

Nov. 16: Clouds loom over Yangon, Burma. (AP)

The shopkeeper, a thin, jittery man who has spent nearly half his life in prison, wishes change were coming to Burma.

But the recent elections were a sham, he says, and the promises of democratic reform are empty words. He celebrated the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, but dismissed the idea it heralds a change in this secretive military-ruled nation.

"This is not a new era," said Bo Bo Oo, 46, in sentiments echoed around the country, which is also known as Burma. "The generals will not change."

Globalization reached the long-isolated nation while Bo Bo Oo was in prison, serving 20 years for helping organize pro-democracy protests in 1988. Amid Burma's withering poverty, you can now buy knockoff iPhones at the Mobile World shop in Mandalay and browse for lingerie at the Sexy Girl store in Yangon. You can live in a high-rise condo and watch CNN on satellite TV.

But belief in political change is much harder to find. This is a country battered by its own government, its pessimism shaped by decades of experience. In conversations with dozens of people — farmers, business owners, monks, journalists, housewives and activists — little was heard but anguish.

"The government has the power, and it does not want to give it up," an elderly Buddhist monk said in the quiet riverside town of Amarapura. He was sitting on a wooden bench in the carefully swept dirt yard of the monastery where he has lived for more than 70 years, not far from the central city of Mandalay.

He remembers the days of British colonialism, and the Japanese occupation during World War II. He can talk about fleeing into the forests when Allied bombs began falling around the town, and the first military coup, in 1958. In 2007, he watched as monks were arrested and even killed during anti-government protests dominated by the Buddhist clergy.

He sees modern Burma as the darkest time.

"It's like a twisting road that just goes on and on," he said, his robes wrapped tightly around him because of a winter chill, as chickens scrabbled in the dirt behind him. "I don't know if it will ever stop twisting."

Like most people in Burma, he spoke on condition he not be identified, fearing retribution from the ruling junta's agents and the "Tatmadaw," as the army is called.

A few analysts do see signs of change. At the very least, they say, the elections will create new clusters of power in Naypyidaw, the capital city.

In Mandalay, a young businessman also sees a sliver of possibility in the elections.

"I don't believe in these generals. I cannot see them giving up any power," he said, walking through the city on a recent evening. "But maybe some new people (in the government) will change something. I hope so."

Bo Bo Oo, though, sees no hope.

"All this is just about publicity," he said of the Nov. 7 elections and Suu Kyi's release last weekend. He owns a little grocery store in Yangon, the former capital once known as Rangoon, and runs a small art gallery with his wife.

Like many, he notes that Suu Kyi's release came just a week after the first elections in 20 years, giving the junta a desperately needed publicity boost. While the military claims the vote will usher in a democratic government, much of the international community decried it as political burlesque that will entrench the generals behind proxy politicians.

"They want the world to think that this is becoming a democracy. But the Burmese people know the truth," he said.

Fourteen months after his release from prison, Bo Bo Oo still finds himself startled by freedom. He is nervous handling keys. His hands are often shaky. He jumps when doors suddenly open.

"I don't like to lock doors," he said, sitting on a bamboo chair in the art gallery. "I hate being out on the street."

Burma holds nearly 2,200 political prisoners in an archipelago of crumbling prisons. Some of the country's minority ethnic groups, who have faced brutal repression, back a string of militias that have fought the generals for decades.

The government's political agenda is seldom clear. Little is known about Than Shwe, the general who heads the junta, beyond rumors and gossip. International officials can go years without meeting him, and new ambassadors, who get a few minutes with him when they present their credentials, are grilled for insights.

His most visible moment came in 2006, when smuggled video footage showed him and his daughter on her wedding day, with her draped in long strings of diamond-encrusted jewelry.

Despite such wealth among the leadership, the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world until the late 1980s, leaving the economy in ruins. Companies were nationalized, outside investment discouraged and tourists limited to short visits. Today, the country has a per-capita income of about $1,100, and a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

In recent years, that has begun to change. Burma is now an increasingly important regional trading hub and has become an ally of both China and India, where energy-hungry companies are desperate for Burma's natural gas and hydroelectric resources.

While poverty remains widespread, the two main cities now have a veneer of modernization.

At luxury hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, pianists play easy-listening versions of Simon and Garfunkel songs in marbled lobbies, entertaining Chinese businessmen and wealthy tourists. The colonial buildings of old Rangoon are disappearing, replaced by malls and housing complexes those businessmen are funding.

It has become a country where you can buy 50-cent bootleg DVDs of "Beach Sex Party" on the streets of Yangon, but go to prison for owning a copy of "Rambo IV," which has Sylvester Stallone's character battling the junta.

Such restrictions are part of the daily background of life.

Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail are blocked, along with exile websites, though anyone Internet-savvy knows ways to get around the barriers.

The main English-language newspaper of the junta, The New Light of Burma, is filled with Stalinist rhetoric. Almost every day, it promises that democracy is coming.

The New Light recently dismissed previous civilian governments as "like the water that flowed away in complete disorder," while insisting "the Tatmadaw government's military rule was aimed at guiding the nation to discipline-flourishing democracy."

On the streets, though, they just don't believe it.

"Nothing is immortal, even the generals," said a young journalist in Mandalay, who asked that his name not be used. "But I think people have given up hope for change."

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