RANGOON –Two years after the official end of the Burmese military regime, some citizens are skeptical, whilst others remain deeply critical of the current government. Some people fear the reforms will keep running into many obstacles.
Still, there is one point everyone agrees on: the clearest sign that the democratization process is happening is that freedom of speech truly exists.
Journalists, editors-in-chief, young union organizers, former political prisoners, bloggers, lawyers, artists – all remember that day, March 30, 2011, when the junta gave up its hold on power. Even if most of the actors of these protest movement note different problems of the Burmese “glasnost,” and share their concern for their future, these are optimistic times. Since General Ne Win’s 1962 coup, it’s the first time the Burmese people may publicly express themselves and demonstrate their discontent.
In just two years’ time, things have considerably changed around here.
“I never thought I’d experience this much freedom, I thought I would spend the rest of my days in exile,” says Myo Thant, a journalist for the website Mizzima who hid in Thailand for several years during the dictatorship.
“I’d say we are 80% free, now,” reckons Moe Zat, a young contemporary artist and planner of previously forbidden cultural events. “But we live in times of transition, there are still many things that remain taboo: sensitive topics such as religion, the army’s role, the ethnic guerillas, nude art."
Aye Ko, a well-known artist whoe served jail time for his pro-democracy activism, is hopeful but wary. “Freedom of speech has never been so widespread, even if we are still kept in the dark on some subjects. We still don’t know the limits of what’s allowed and what’s not. I think we’ll know soon enough.”
When the new government of President Thein Sein took over in summer 2011, a lot of people were skeptical that real change would follow. The most pessimistic feared a “cleaned-up” facade meant to fool both the people and the Western world that democracy was coming.
The rules of democracy
What happened was the exact opposite. Even if the ministers are former generals and 25% of the Parliament remains reserved for the military, the democratic jolt took everyone by surprise. Almost all the political dissidents have been freed; a law allowing unions was passed; the first independent newspapers in decades were allowed to publish; and free legislative elections were held.
It’s true that from the capital Naypyidaw to the actual enforcement of reforms in the provinces, there is still much ground to cover on the road to full democracy. In the words of young lawyer Phyu Phyu Win: “The peasants’ unions or the workers’ associations were indeed created but the local authorities still refuse to abide by the new rules. It’s very difficult to negotiate with the people in charge. The texts say that you can march in the streets, but you have to apply for it, and the authorization isn’t always granted.”
A recent law was presented regarding the press, which angered journalists in Rangoon, who accuse the government of bypassing the newly constituted media council to force through “liberty-killer” legislation. That particular law stipulates that any article liable to “trouble the rightful State, ignite ethnic or religious conflicts,” or any article of “erotic” nature, could mean jail time or heavy fines for the publisher responsible.
Those measures leave much room for interpretation -- and abuse. “The reforms are underway, but there are many people trying to sink them. The government keeps going forward and then steps back,” says Than Htut Aung, director of newspaper group Eleven Media.
Freedom can be a double-edged sword. When Buddhist extremists recently assaulted Muslims during riots, the death toll reached 50. Newly acquired freedom of speech can also unleash old grudges. The emergence of a sometimes bloody Burmese nationalism is perhaps the most troubling news for this country’s future.
According to blogger Nay Phone Latt, a former political prisoner organizing journalistic training in provinces, the reality has different faces: “I’m surprised about how deep the youth’s interest is for information. However I try to tell them that democracy also comes with rules, and you can't just say anything.”