From Mandalay Workshop. People say what they think here, even criticize the government. No one appears worried about who is listening. (Photo from Thant Thaw)
Things are changing in Myanmar. Perceptions outside are changing as well. This time when we got our visas in Bangkok the lines in the street were three times what they were last year. Processing was faster as well. Once they opened those lines disappeared in less than a half an hour. Tourism should be way up compared to last year. Even so, it will still be just a few percent of Thailand.
Myanmar is still a mysterious country to most Americans. I’ve seen news stories about corrupt or “non democratic” countries that class Myanmar in with North Korea, Syria and other such countries. For example, on Christmas eve in my hotel room in Myanmar I saw on CNN news, available with no censorship I could notice, the text running across the screen bottom: ”Pope prays for Syria and Myanmar.”
Myanmar simply is not comparable with these countries. In North Korea I’m sure I would never get out of sight of some tour guide handler working for the government and there would be only certain places I would be allowed to go and see. In Syria I’d probably get shot by one side or the other. Here we can go where we want and look at what we want. If we are under surveillance they certainly are good at hiding it from us. Sue and I were with a group in Egypt a few months back where extensive security precautions were taken for us. I felt they were needed. Here we walk by ourselves large cities at night when the power is off (which can be often) and feel perfectly safe. In one city we were on our own and heard children in a school . We went over and looked in the door and were immediately invited in. In the U.S. we would have to get permission from the office and probably be assigned an escort.
In previous years I have warned everyone that we would be out of contact during our time in Myanmar. Right now I’m sitting in a very nice hotel in Yangon, hooked to wireless internet. I have already posted three blog articles although access is now slowing so I may need to get the rest of this off in Thailand. I’ve perused cnn.com and sent out a bunch of emails. There is no government censorship of the internet that I have heard of or can detect myself. The hotel desk clerk did recommend I not use the internet on Saturday and Sunday. They said all the young people will hit the coffee shops, cafes and other public places and use the free wireless. Throughout the country the internet will slow to a crawl since the infrastructure is not so good yet.
I have heard much more in various discussions and conclude with many people here that freedom in various areas is coming faster than anyone has expected. I am not a Burma expert and will not go into the details, but you can look up Derek Tonkin or Robert Taylor on the internet and see what they say. I have been with each of these people and feel they are among the most informed and reasonable sources about Myanmar and its current condition.
I see pictures of opposition political people hanging on the outside of some homes, among them Aung San Suu Kyi. She is even running for parliament now. She is a wonderful lady and has suffered much in the past. Still, it has been counterproductive that the US has for more than 20 years treated her as the head of state here. It would be like the EU deciding that the 2000 elections in the US were unfair and treating Al Gore as head of state for the next 20 years. Treating Suu Kyi that way might be nice, fair and maybe even just in some way, but it has not been useful.
The government here has loosened things up. They still have a long way to go and a great many things to fix in how they operate. Just recently Hillary Clinton came for a visit and talks, but the U.S. policy toward Myanmar also has a long way to go and many things to fix. It will be interesting to see who goes faster, but at the moment it appears to be Myanmar.