Rays of hope in dark Myanmar

Residents who for years were lucky to get eight hours of power a day may soon have the luxury of refrigerators that stay cold and televisions that stay on.
But it will not make much difference for one 64-year-old Yangon resident on a lakeside road blockaded by the police: Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and this country’s best-known dissident, who lives in a blacked-out world, barred from most communication with anyone outside her walled compound. Her telephone line was cut years ago, and she has no computer or television, her lawyer said.

These are the duelling realities of Myanmar today. After years of deadlock and stagnation, change is coming, but strictly on the junta’s terms.
There is guarded hope among business people and diplomats that Myanmar, or Burma, as many people still call the country, may be gradually moving away from years of paranoid authoritarianism and Soviet-style economic management that has left the majority of the country’s 55 million people in dire poverty.

A new constitution is expected to be introduced later this year, and the junta is planning the first elections in two decades. Analysts say that the elections are not likely to be fully competitive or fair, but that they could move the military to decentralise some of its power.

“Burma is at a critical watershed,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian and former UN official who has written widely on the country. “We’re clearly moving towards something other than a strict army hierarchy with just one general at the top.”
What passes for hope in Myanmar is incremental change and the prospect that the military will gradually fade from politics — allowing this country of vast resources, with land so fertile it once fed large parts of the British empire, to finally participate in the economic dynamism that surrounds it.

Signs of change abound. The military, which has been in power for close to five decades, has issued permits for private hospitals and schools, neither of which were officially allowed before. It has sold a raft of state-run factories and assets to cronies in the private sector and appears to be lifting some of the punitive restrictions on the ownership of cars and motorcycles. The country is taking steps to revive its troubled but potentially lucrative rice exports.

Visits to Myanmar by international economists, including teams from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, used to be dialogues of the deaf’, one western diplomat said. But that has changed. Joseph E Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist who visited Myanmar in December, said the ministers and military officials he met were eager for advice about stimulating growth and promoting private enterprise.
Myanmar has seen many false dawns before, and it is always possible that the generals will change their minds and roll back the nascent liberalisation. But at least one crucial change is inevitable in the coming years. The reclusive leader of the junta, Senior Gen Than Shwe, a master at keeping his opponents off balance, is 78 years old and has no obvious successor.

A common explanation for the change in direction is that Than Shwe is dismantling his system of absolute power because he does not want another strongman to emerge who could hurt his family or threaten the wealth he seems to have built up during nearly two decades in power. The question of succession is a karmic one for the general, who put his predecessor, Ne Win, under house arrest and is said to have denied him medical treatment before his death in 2002.

Thant Myint-U, the historian and former diplomat, said the main tensions in the country today were within the military itself, not between the generals and Suu Kyi and her democracy movement.
The New York Times

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