On the streets of Rangoon “the Lady” is a fridge magnet. Once banned under the censorship laws of Burma’s former military regime, Aung San Suu Kyi’s image now adorns an array of trinkets for sale in its biggest city. In the teeming central market, traders hawk T-shirts and canvas tote bags featuring a pop-art reworking of her face. A fashionable art gallery sells portraits of the Nobel laureate at a price well beyond the reach of all but the richest Burmese.
Foreign visitors – a mixture of potential investors and curious tourists – can pick up Suu Kyi keyrings and pens in the shiny new departure lounge at Rangoon’s international airport.
The commercialisation of Burma’s best-known former political prisoner is a metaphor for the changes happening in what was one of the world’s most cloistered countries, and one that is replete with irony.
Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in 2010, looks presidential when she gazes from the front pages of Burma’s newspapers – a great number of them privately owned and set up after media restrictions were relaxed – but she remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country approaches a landmark election next year.
Many Burmese see her fate as a bellwether for how far their country’s much-trumpeted reforms have gone – but also how far it has yet to go. The euphoria that greeted Burma’s tentative steps towards democracy a few years ago has given way to worries that the progress has stalled at best or rolled back at worst.
"Is everything hunky-dory? No, not yet. Absolutely not," the US secretary of state, John Kerry, said during a recent visit. "There are still things that need to be done."
Conversations with a range of Burmese on our recent reporting trip showed that to be something of an understatement. From sophisticated Rangoonites to the rural poor struggling to make ends meet, the ambitious returned diaspora, former political dissidents, and Buddhist monks, there was a sense that Burma was on the right path but that not everyone was benefiting, and few could hazard a guess as to the final destination.
“Our country has changed, there is no doubt about that,” says Soo, who was forced to flee to Thailand when he and fellow activists were targeted by the junta in the 1990s. Several of his friends were imprisoned. Now he lives with his family in northern Burma, where he works as a guide and hopes to set up his own tourism business. “There is a kind of freedom, but it comes slowly, and we worry we might lose it again.”
Among the most concerning issues are the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Burma, displaced in huge numbers by repeated attacks, and the related rise of a populist movement based on Buddhist chauvinism that threatens delicate coexistence in an ethnically and religiously diverse country.
Diplomats also fret about an apparent backsliding on some recently granted press freedoms – earlier this year five journalists were given lengthy jail terms after publishing a contested article on a weapons factory – and a more lukewarm approach than expected from foreign investors considered vital to building an economy hobbled by decades of state control.
Long isolated by the secretive, brutally repressive military juntas that ruled it since 1962, Burma, also known as Myanmar, now finds itself right in the middle of this century's most potent geopolitical theatres. Its strategic location between China and India is one of the main reasons Burma has been courted by the US and Europe, both of which tried to coax its political and economic opening-up in return for the lifting of stiff sanctions.
Changes, including the freeing of Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her pro-democracy struggle, and her participation in parliamentary byelections in 2012, ostensibly brought five decades of military dictatorship to an end.
Burmese officials have embarked on a series of reforms, including partial economic liberalisation and an easing of the draconian laws that had previously stifled the media and any prospect of civil society. The government has released more than 1,300 political prisoners and professed, on paper at least, a commitment to human rights.
Those efforts have brought rewards. The US and the EU began to loosen sanctions, with the latter lifting the last of its travel, financial and individual sanctions in April last year.
As a result Burma is experiencing a rapid transformation, one that is most visible in Rangoon – also known as Yangon – its commercial heart and largest city. In the shadow of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda glossy billboards advertise expensive condominiums next to posters proudly noting Burma's chairing this year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Another hoarding nearby announces the latest round of Myanmar's Got Talent, a television show.
Construction cranes dot the skyline of a city where many colonial-era neighbourhoods remain in a kind of suspended animation, their crumbling buildings a testament to the days when the British presence in Burma included George Orwell, who spent five years with the Imperial Police Force here. “We have a property boom in Yangon,” says one local estate agent, an ethnic Chinese woman with chic bobbed hair. “Prices are soaring.”
Foreign guidebooks written just a couple of years ago are already hopelessly out of date, their advice to bring cash rendered obsolete by the bank machines that have cropped up not just in Rangoon but also in smaller cities. Car dealerships have proliferated, as have shopping centres packed with western goods. Hip cocktail bars and sushi restaurants draw Rangoon’s gilded youth – as well as loud parties of Chinese and Japanese businesspeople and European expats.
In one affluent district a Burmese gourmet – one of the recently returned diaspora – sells delicacies including sea salt from the southern coast and French-style cheeses that he makes with local milk.
But this new Burma is out of reach to most of the more than 55 million people who call the country home. “The changes have largely benefited the elite in Yangon and other cities,” says one UN official. “What you find beyond those urban centres is a different world.”
Despite efforts to present Burma as open for business, the foreign investment many hoped would boost their impoverished economy has been slow to materialise. Investors from countries including Ireland have come to explore the country’s potential, but many are wary of endemic corruption, an opaque and dysfunctional bureaucracy, and infrastructure that is creaking or all but nonexistent.
Doing business in Burma means, more often than not, dealing with the military in some way. Despite a nominally civilian government, the army’s power, particularly the economic clout it wields through land and commercial ownership, remains largely intact. The constitution guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in parliament and reserves key ministry posts for officers.
“Things seem to be changing on the surface, but in reality not much has changed,” says Lu Maw, a member of the Moustache Brothers, a comedy troupe based in the northern city of Mandalay. Its politically charged work has previously drawn the admiration of Suu Kyi and landed two of the comedians in jail. “It’s the same people, just wearing different clothes and using a different name. What economic progress we have seen has benefited only the government’s friends, the cronies.”
Burma’s population is youthful – the country’s median age is 27 – and that generation has higher expectations than those who knew nothing but the former regime. Youth unemployment is a concern.
“It is not so much joblessness as hopelessness that threatens our future,” Suu Kyi told the International Labour Conference in 2012. “Unemployed youth lose confidence in the society that has failed to give them the chance to realise their potential.”
Impact of technology
Older Burmese talk of an impatient younger generation shaped by technology and exposed to ideas and worlds that were previously unknown. “With the internet and other tools of globalisation reaching Burma, many young Burmese feel part of the world, not apart from it,” says Aung Myint, an academic in Mandalay. “They want more.”
Even novice Buddhist monks are not immune. It is not uncommon to see young monks in burgundy robes tapping away on smartphones. Several prominent monks have Facebook pages, and a number of controversial monks have used social media to instigate attacks against the country’s embattled Muslim minority. The government has periodically tried to shut down Facebook in response.
Religious-based violence in cities and towns across Burma is viewed as one of the most serious challenges facing its tentative reform process. Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands of others displaced. The victims have overwhelmingly been Muslim.
This summer radical Buddhists rampaged through predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods in multicultural Mandalay, causing two deaths and prompting a curfew and the deployment of hundreds of riot police.
What’s causing extremism?
Some Burmese attribute the rise of extreme Buddhist nationalists to the fact that such movements are freer to operate in a less oppressive political environment. Others say it springs from anxieties about national identity brought about by the upending of old certainties as the country propels itself into a globalised world. Still others suspect that at least some of it is encouraged by political forces keen to distract ordinary Burmese from a limping economy and slowed reforms.
This year the administration of President Thein Sein, a former general who began the liberalisation drive in 2011, proposed a series of controversial laws portrayed as efforts to "protect" Buddhism. Pushed by radical monks, the legislation seeks to restrict interfaith marriage and make it more difficult for people to convert from Buddhism.
Burma’s monks wield considerable influence on the population, and many see this as the main reason Suu Kyi has not spoken out more strongly against the uglier manifestations of radical Buddhism, particularly the targeting of the Rohingya.
The members of that long-persecuted ethnic minority are deprived of citizenship despite having lived in Burma for generations. Two years ago thousands were driven from their homes in rioting that erupted after rumours spread that Muslim men had raped a Buddhist woman.
Today more than 100,000 Rohingya live in squalid camps along the southwest coast in conditions that deteriorated even further when the government banned Doctors Without Borders and other humanitarian agencies after more violence erupted. The Rohingya suffering is so acute that in April Tomás Ojéa Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, said there is an “element of genocide” to the crisis.
As a changing Burma, with all its discontents, heads into pivotal national elections next year, there are fears that such religious strife could be exacerbated as the vote approaches if political elements try to court the support of radicals.
The ballot will see Thein Sein and the governing party compete against Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. “Next year’s election,” John Kerry said during his August trip, “will absolutely be a benchmark moment for the whole world to be able to assess the direction that Burma is moving in.”
The Lady and the presidency
Suu Kyi, despite the fact she is arguably the most popular figure in the country, faces major obstacles in her attempt to become president, not least the clause in the military-drafted constitution that forbids those with children or spouses who hold citizenship of other countries from running.
Suu Kyi has two sons with her deceased British husband, and the clause is considered to have been inserted to exclude her from the presidency. She and her party have run a campaign for constitutional reform this year, collecting five million signatures petitioning for certain clauses to be changed. “She is the mother of our nation,” says one Burmese man who signed up, repeating a frequently heard name for Suu Kyi.
In June, however, a majority of parliamentarians on an election committee voted against amending that clause. The woman Burmese call the Lady is not giving up: she continues to take swipes at the still powerful military in public speeches and keeps lobbying for constitutional change.
The red flag and insignia of the National League for Democracy adorn the gates to the lakeside home in Rangoon where Suu Kyi spent long years under house arrest and savoured the arrival of packages containing copies of British Vogue and Dairy Milk chocolate, as local lore has it.
Earlier this month she attended a ceremony hosted by the government in Burma’s sterile, purpose-built capital, Nay Pyi Taw, to mark the International Day of Democracy. Choosing her words carefully, Suu Kyi spoke of the challenges ahead. “We cannot say that we have had four years of democracy,” she said. “We can only say we have had four years of striving towards democracy.”
Profile: Burma in facts and figures
Burma – officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar – is the largest country in mainland southeast Asia, at 676,578sq km. But despite being a large country in a region of economic growth, Burma is also the poorest country in the region.
About a quarter of the population is living in poverty, and, despite Burma’s being an extremely resource-rich country, its economy is one of the least developed in the world. It has suffered through decades of financial mismanagement.
The poor economy has affected Burma’s demographics, with extreme delays in marriage and family building. The average marriage age is 26.9, much higher than the regional average. A low fertility rate of 2.23is just above replacement level; population growth is very low.
In 2011 Burma transitioned to a civilian government. This has marked the beginning of an economic overhaul with a reform programme that aimed to attract foreign investment and reintegrate Burma into the global economy. But the World Bank ranks Burma only 182nd out of 189 countries to do business in.
The transition to civilian government followed decades of military rule, between 1962 and the general elections in 2010. Burma is still governed by its 2008 constitution, however, its third since independence, which enshrines the primacy of the military.
Although the generals were accused of numerous human-rights violations, such as the forced relocation of civilians and forced labour, including child labour, Burma’s human-rights record hasn’t improved dramatically since the switch in government.
There have been some changes. More than 1,300 political prisoners have been released since 2011, and an action plan has been signed with the UN to protect children in armed conflict; this has led to the release of 272 child soldiers so far.
Burma spends the lowest percentage of its GDP on healthcare – between 0.5 per cent and 3 per cent – of any country in the world; as a result the standard of healthcare is very low. Public hospitals lack basic facilities.
This series is supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund