As Myanmar opens up, Burmese are enjoying more freedoms than ever before, but many are wary of the changes and think their country still has a long way to go.
The sound of prayer bells rings out at the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the landmarks of Myanmar's old capital city of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Buddhism is widely followed here and saffron-robed monks are a common site on the streets. Worshippers bring offerings of fresh jasmine and hit these bells so the gods pay attention to their prayers. Many are praying that the peace and democratic reforms sweeping the militarily-ruled country will last.
Sing Sing, is a Burmese doctor who prefers to keep her real name to herself - too fresh are the changes for her to fully trust in them. She believes it all started around eight months ago. “There is more activism now for example: the farmers are allowed to express their feelings; they stood up to get back their land, which had been confiscated in the past by some of the cronies in collaboration with the military junta," she says.
Like many others, Sing Sing thinks the Internet and people's right to information has played a key role in opening up her country. “I think if more people have more access to the outside world through the Internet, or through Youtube or Facebook, then they can read different things about what is happening in the outside world and, by seeing the pictures, they can compare what is happening inside the country and outside the country," she notes.
Shaky press freedom
But Maung Lone, a former journalist with the weekly bilingual newspaper The Myanmar Times, who also wishes to remain anonymous, warns that the announcement that Burmese journalists no longer have to submit their stories to the government before publication is misleading.
“The announcement is quite important, but it does not mean that we have full media rights; it doesn't mean that. The government's announcement is not abolishing censorship, as the outside media are writing and saying that the government abolished the censor board - no its not like that," he says. “The government just lets the media publish first and then submit to the censor board," he points out. "If the government finds out that articles published in the newspapers are not compatible with the government standard, they will sue the paper.”
Maung Lone agrees with Sing Sing, however, that the changes are rooted in an emerging awareness of the outside world and says the Arab Spring has had an impact on Burma.
“We listen to the radio and have a chance to know what's going on outside the country, like the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. We heard things that have become an inspiration for us. We've been struggling for so long and change is happening around the world. That, I think, is the result of our struggle for two decades, ” says Maung.
Aye Chan Naing, Director of the Democratic Voice of Burma
In other advances, Maung Lone says journalists have been removed from the Government's blacklist and independent media organizations are setting up in Rangoon. This includes the Democratic Voice of Burma, a group of video journalists who filmed the monks' protests of September 2007 – dubbed the Saffron Uprising – and were subsequently arrested.
“Journalists are working and going into parliament and interviewing government officials. I think there is huge progress in the media; all exiled media can come into Burma, open offices, run their publications and criticize the government openly. I think the progress is quite huge,” he noted.
In the old days, Maung Lone used to meet fellow journalists and activists in Rangoon's traditional teashops to talk politics in secret. For some that was too risky and they fled the country. One of them, Aung Myo Thein, still lives in Thailand, where he campaigns for the release of Burmese political prisoners with a group called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
“According to our database, there are over 300 political prisoners still behind bars: Students, monks, civilians, elderly people and lawyers are still behind bars,” he emphasizes.
Rights violations continue
Myo Thein says that while the outside world sees progress in tourist hotspots and the main cities of Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, human rights violations still continue in the more rural and remote regions of Myanmar.
“We cannot even see the real situation on the ground inside Burma, because no one can go freely to remote areas, especially the conflict areas. How can we know the true situation?," he says. “We do not agree that there is a lot of progress yet. They are progressing just at the upper level, but not on the ground. They do not allow us to see all political prisoners and no one can agree to take action on the human rights violations,” he adds.
In August, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, lawyer Tomas Quintana, made his sixth trip to the country. He visited a number of prisons and agrees with activists that the remaining political prisoners must be freed immediately, if the government is to truly change.
“The president has released a lot of political prisoners, which is improving the numbers of political prisoners who are now on the streets, but according to my information there are a lot of political prisoners who remain in jail,” he notes.
Aung San Suu Kyi was freed after nearly two years under house arrest
Even when political prisoners are freed, there remains the issue of how to bring justice to the thousands of Burmese who have been tortured and whose families have been torn apart by decades of repression by a police state. Quintana has an idea.
“Widespread and systematic human rights abuses from the past will definitely come back to the present and to the future in Myanmar if any measure is being taken in this respect. I am exploring the possibility to establish a truth commission as a way to start addressing the problem. I have heard from Madam Aung San Suu Kyi personally, I have discussed this issue with her, and she is in favor of addressing the truth from the past. In fact, she was telling me that she has been a political prisoner for many years and she had the chance to really heal the pain for human rights abuses by talking to the press, to the media etc., but there are hundreds of political prisoners who are still suffering from those years and they need to heal the pain. One way to do it is to disclose the truth, to speak freely about what happened,” he says.
The tricky question of how to deal with Burma's painful past aside, Quintana is convinced the future could look bright. He believes recent diplomatic missions by President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi will help mend international relations and improve the country's economic prospects. But, the fact that people like Sing Sing and Maung Lone are still wary about giving their real names should serve as a cautionary reminder that the country still has a long way to go.