Obstacles lie ahead in Burma's bid for reform

Aung San Suu Kyi Aung San Suu Kyi has led the drive for reform in Burma for years

Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has announced she is ready to re-enter politics, but many obstacles still lie ahead for a country still coming to terms with reform.

Driving through the Burmese countryside, I passed a Land Rover that must have been half a century old, four monks clinging to its green frame, as they rattled through the countryside, saffron robes blowing in the breeze.

Women with their faces daubed in sandalwood paste under conical straw hats glanced up as we passed. Behind them, a man stood under an awning rhythmically treading a water pump to irrigate the paddy fields as they worked.

Our destination could not have been more different from this timeless scene. The neat lawns in the strange fantasy-land of the new capital Nay Pyi Taw, carved out of the jungle, where everything is on a gargantuan scale.

When it was built, civil servants were told to move north overnight from Rangoon - disrupting families and lives. Suicide rates in this weird place are said to be very high.

There are tens of thousands of hotel rooms, empty most of the year, except during a gem fair, when Chinese buyers descend on Nay Pyi Taw to deal in Burma's mineral wealth.

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The presidential palace with its vast air-conditioned spaces, and chandeliers sparkling with thousands of lights, seem more than incongruous in a country where state spending on health per person is less than $1 (£0.70) per year.

The new town exists in a fantasy economy.

As it is a capital city, foreign diplomats will be expected to move here, and areas have been marked out for them already. But one Western embassy worked out that the way the sites are being financed, it would cost $70m over 30 years if they took up the offer.

But in a military state, normal economics have been turned on their head for a long time.

There are several exchange rates for the Burmese currency, as black market money flows in and out of the country.

In the wings

The real power here lies in the hands of men who are called "cronies" in normal conversation. Like Russian oligarchs, the cronies in Burma are the men behind the scenes, close to China and outside democratic control as they profit from monopolies in timber, gems and gas.

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In a sequence of carefully choreographed moves, the government is easing its relationship towards this iconic figure ”

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They are watching in the wings, as a government with reform on its mind moves steadily away from the corruption and repression of a world that, in the past, suited them well.

Change means that recently released prisoners can write in dissident newspapers that are no longer censored and are distributed openly.

Until only a few months ago there were daily attacks on the BBC in Burma's main newspaper.

Aung San Suu Kyi said that one of the biggest signals of change was that she, for the first time, had been able to talk openly to the BBC in Rangoon, after I was given an unprecedented visa.

The political impact of all this is seismic.

Bumping along in the back of a van on our way to see a school opened in the last year by Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters, Myo Yan Naung Thein, the leader of the last major student protest back in 1996, told me in clear and stark terms that protest is over.

He and his comrades - who made new alliances in jail - have formed a loose network of pro-democracy groups, backing Aung San Suu Kyi, and working within the system for the first time. He said: "If you can't beat them, join them."


  • 7 Nov 2010: First polls in 20 years
  • 13 Nov: Aung San Suu Kyi freed from house arrest
  • 30 Mar 2011: Transfer of power to new government complete
  • 14 Aug: Aung San Suu Kyi allowed to leave Rangoon on political visit
  • 19 Aug: Aung San Suu Kyi meets Burmese President Thein Sein
  • 6 Oct: Human rights commission established
  • 12 Oct: More than 200 political prisoners freed
  • 13 Oct: New labour laws allowing unions passed
  • 17 Nov: Burma granted Asean chair in 2014

In a graphic image, the former student leader said that if Burmese people were willing to line up, 10 by 10 by 10 in front of soldiers shooting, then revolution would be possible, as they would wear out the will of the army after thousands had died.

"But," he concluded, "we don't have enough blood to shed".

In calling off protests, the pro-democracy activists are putting all their trust in secret conversations that the new President Thein Sein has had with Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a sequence of carefully choreographed moves, the government is easing its relationship towards this iconic figure - not unlike the way white South Africa changed course and opened Nelson Mandela's prison doors.

Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi are openly for sale on the streets, and she will run for parliament, probably next year.

But Aung San Suu Kyi has not brought all of her party with her in her decision to compromise with the regime. There was another protest by Buddhist monks in Mandalay this week.

Small demos like these are a distraction. More widespread protests though could destabilise the confidence built between Aung San Suu Kyi and the reformist president and his allies. And it would strengthen the hand of hard-liners opposed to reform in the strange fantasy capital.

Formidable obstacles to reform remain and high hopes rest on the slender figure of Aung San Suu Kyi.

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