This guest blog post is from Deborah Weinberg, who is currently traveling in Burma (Myanmar). The post originated as an email to the author’s friends and was forwarded to Tricycle—it is being published with her permission. In it, she tells us of Burma’s new year political report card: A fresh wind of freedom is in the air, she says. Burma recently gained political attention when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in late November, ending a fifty-year estrangement between the U.S. and Burma. Despite this and though the government has been promising to continue reforms, Weinberg writes, “The generals are still holding the cards.”
Mingalaba and Happy New Year! Our ten days in Burma was an exhilarating mix of walking the streets and neighborhoods of Yangon, seeing old friends and meeting remarkable new people. It was an opportunity to see for ourselves what was happening on the “inside,” as the activists on the Thai border say, and to see for ourselves evidence of meaningful change. The Burmese report card is a hopeful one. However, in the same breath things could teeter and plunge back into darkness in a Rangoon second, but that seems unlikely.
We saw scenes that could not have happened six months ago. Images of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her father General Aung San are now displayed in all parts of the city without fear. They are plastered on the covers of every paper and journal sold at stalls on every corner in the city. The image of Hillary Clinton smiling broadly with Daw Suu, embracing like sisters, is displayed publicly and fearlessly. In past years, even hanging a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi in your shop could put you in prison for a lengthy stay. Even the mention of her name was not allowed by the military regime.
The busy teashops are the political barometer in Burma and now show much evidence of change. Before people would sit for hours drinking their green tea, nibbling on the snacks offered: spicy noodles, tea-leaf salads and crisp samosas, but their political discontent was only whispered for fear of arrest. The teashops were the places for receiving smuggled news from the free world, the latest report of the newest political prisoner and the voice of the struggle for democracy. News, gossip and jokes mocking the military junta and their misdeeds would swiftly pass from one tea sipper to the next, from shop to shop and block to block until the entire city eventually heard the unfiltered truth. The real news never made the press, only propaganda.
Now, there is an undeniably positive and vibrant wind blowing in the hearts and minds of the people. We had numerous conversations on the street regarding the recent pro-democratic changes. People can now actually utter that word—“democracy”— without fear of imprisonment. We shared animated discussions with our poet friend, Aung. As we sat and drank tea he said that if the secret police were watching him now he would not be the least bit worried. “How can you arrest 55 million people?” he asks with a big grin on his face. I asked him if I could now email him news reports regarding Burma, democracy, and the freedom struggles from around the world without fear of reprisal and he laughed loudly saying that we could send him anything we wanted. Censorship of the Internet now seems to be a dead issue whereas before it was monitored severely. Really quite remarkable since only a year ago, BBC, Voice of America, Democratic Voice of Burma and all sites critical of the regime were dangerously off limits to Burmese citizens. Is this the beginning of the end of fear? It seems for the locals that there is no going back. We were told that if the changes were rolled back the reactions could be highly volatile and would generate a great deal of bad press which is the last thing the new administration wants. There is a strong mixture of hope and caution in the wind.
We are all now watching how the dramatic events in Burma impact the minority ethnic communities, refugees and political dissidents who have suffered so much abuse at the hands of the government. The promised release of political prisoners on January 4th disappointed all of us who are lovers of the Burmese people. Only a few prisoners—no more than 30—instead of the more than one thousand still suffering in the prisons were released. Strong pressure is on the government to release more in the coming weeks and months, but the generals are still holding the cards. We’ll find out in the coming months if the progress is real and a genuine road to freedom.