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Cautious optimism as Myanmar starts to shed the grime of oppression

Political reforms have given the country’s rights activists confidence to operate openly, but decades of military rule means escaping poverty remains a central focus of life.

Moe Thway, a member of the Generation Wave protest group, is so far impressed with the transformation of Myanmar since a series reforms kicked in last year.
Moe Thway, a member of the Generation Wave protest group, is so far impressed with the transformation of Myanmar since a series reforms kicked in last year.

Political reforms have given the country’s rights activists confidence to operate openly, but decades of military rule means escaping poverty remains a central focus of life. Eric Randolph, Foreign Correspondent reports

YANGON, MYANMAR // Moe Thway brushes off any worries about the two plainclothes intelligence agents sitting a couple of tables over in the rundown tea shop of this Yangon slum.

"It's not a problem," he says after one of the tea shop regulars alerts him to their presence. "But two years ago, it would have been extremely dangerous to bring a foreigner to this area."

It is market day, and the main road is packed with shoppers looking over cheap T-shirts, fresh vegetables and knock-off accessories.

"Our job now is to educate the people about the true meaning of democracy," Mr Moe, 35, says after leaving the tea shop.

That he can talk openly this way is a testament to how far Myanmar has come since the president Thein Sein took office a year ago and ushered in a series of groundbreaking reforms in the former military dictatorship.

Mr Moe is a civil-rights activist and his organisation, Generation Wave, was formed after a brutal repression of pro-democracy protests in 2007 known as the Saffron Revolution. More than half of its 50 members were jailed after trying to organise additional rallies. Today, all but one of the group is free, along with hundreds of other political prisoners.

Their release from jail is not the only sign of the political thaw.

Last week, Myanmar's most famous opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, entered parliament, 22 years after her last election victory sparked another military coup. Her party, the National League for Democracy, said yesterday that authorities had issued her a passport.

The 66-year-old democracy icon, who spent much of the past two decades locked up in her Yangon home by Myanmar's former junta, plans to visit Oslo next month to finally accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in person. Although Mr Moe has experienced first-hand the brutality that Myanmar's authorities are capable of meting out, he is so far impressed with the transformation.

"Some of the government's decisions have surprised us. The president is really trying to change things," he says while walking through Hlaing Tharya, a teeming slum on the outskirts of Myanmar's largest city and former capital, Yangon.

Despite the cautious optimism, there are reminders everywhere of how far Myanmar must go to shed the devastating legacy wrought by five decades of military oppression.

Aung Nay Lin, 45, shares his 3-by-2 metre room with his wife, sister and three children.

"We have a lot of arguments," he says. "And the walls are very thin, so there is a lot of noise from the neighbours."

There are 17 rooms in this makeshift hostel, a rickety dwelling of wooden planks and bamboo. Outside, the early monsoon rains create a moat of putrid, blue-tinted sewer water in the street, strewn with litter, that will be ankle-deep when the downpours start in earnest next month.

Nay Lin is one of the luckier ones. His supervisor's job at a construction site, 90 minutes away by bus, earns him US$7 a day (Dh25.7). Many of his neighbours earn half that as labourers.

But there is no job security. Unemployment or sickness often force families into loans at ruinous interest rates - 20 per cent per 20 days is standard. The weight of family debt is a major driver of prostitution, rampant in these slums.

Most residents have fled even worse poverty in the countryside. Many were forced off their land at gunpoint to make way for government projects, or had their farms destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2007, which killed 138,000 people and left millions homeless.

Few dare to hope that real change is coming.

"I don't involve myself in politics," says Mr Aung. "I worry about the survival of my family."

In the colonial era, Yangon, then called Rangoon, was the hub of Asian trade - the Singapore of its day.

The first flights to connect Europe and the Far East stopped off here. It was a place of world-class schools and a thriving middle class, which drew even more immigrants than New York in the 1920s.

Today, the former glory of its downtown quarter is barely visible beneath the layers of grime and broken window frames of its colonial architecture.

The roads are full of scrapheap junkers from the 1980s. One taxi driver recounted his irritation at recently coughing up US$8,000 (Dh29,000) for a dilapidated 30-year-old Nissan that lacked such luxuries as windscreen wipers, windows and lights.

A Sim card still costs US$250, though that's an improvement on the US$3.000 it cost in 2009.

Crippling international sanctions are partly to blame for the state of the economy - about half Yangon's garment factories closed when the US banned imports from Myanmar in the 1990s.

But so are the corrupt monopolies and arbitrary decision-making of the former regime. Than Shwe, the dictator who handed power to the civilian government after rigged elections in 2010, often turned to his astrologer for guidance. The absence of motorbikes in the capital is said to be the result of his anger after a biker cut across his motorcade.

Changes are afoot. Car imports are now allowed, though tight restrictions and onerous taxes remain. The broader economy is bracing for an onslaught of foreign capital after the European Union suspended sanctions. Posher hotels are packed to the rafters with businessmen from abroad looking for an early foothold.

The outcome of the economic and political transition is uncertain. For now, the wave of reform is just reaching the middle class.

Thar Thar, a campaign strategist for Aung San Suu Kyi's party, spent most of the last decade underground, pretending to be a rich kid in downtown Yangon while he recruited potential activists during his day job as an English teacher.

"Downtown was the best place to hide. It's full of wealthy kids from military families who don't care about politics. I got an emo haircut and dyed my hair red and no one suspected a thing. Now all those rich kids are suddenly interested in reform because it's become cool."

Limits remain, not least on the issue of press censorship.

"The government wanted to celebrate World Press Freedom Day last week, so they invited one of us to give a speech," says Thiha Saw, editor of the Yangon weekly Open News.

"Unfortunately, they wanted to read his speech first, and ended up censoring large chunks of it."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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