Burma's New Hope: A Repressive Regime Loosens Its Grip (for Now)

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James Nachtwey for TIME

Posters of Suu Kyi and her father, independence hero Aung San, hang behind monks at a monastery outside Rangoon.

It's instinctive. I still avert my eyes. But the Lady stares at me all over town, in a laminated postcard pressed to my palm by a street child, on a poster at a Buddhist monastery where monks were once locked up for their political activism, at the entrance of a tea shop darkened by one of Burma's chronic power cuts. Just last year, displaying a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, the once jailed democracy icon known affectionately by her supporters as the Lady, could invite arrest by agents of the ruling military junta. Back then, Burmese would furtively show me her image, then look around to see if anyone was watching. Too often, someone was. But now her picture is openly cherished, a 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate as fresh as the blossoms she wears in her hair. "It's like a dream to see her pictures everywhere," says Su Su Nway, a political prisoner who was released in October after four years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement. "I still cannot believe it. I wonder if I will wake up and she will be gone."

For now, she is around — and so was another lady. Hillary Clinton's visit to Burma, which continues through Dec. 2, is the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in more than half a century. For decades, relations between the two nations have moldered, as Burma hid behind a haze of tropical terror and the U.S. slapped economic sanctions on the country's oppressive rulers. Burma is the second poorest country in Asia, after Afghanistan, and the world's second most corrupt, after Somalia. Most Burmese live in the countryside, surviving with barely one foot out of the Iron Age. Virtually everyone not part of the elite suffers the relentless fear of an authoritarian state that can jail practically anyone for any reason. For instance, in 2008, after a cyclone killed some 140,000 people, some Burmese who distributed food were imprisoned simply for inadvertently exposing the government's failure to help citizens. Clinton was, thus, in one of the world's most backward, repressed countries — an Orwellian realm where George Orwell himself once served as a colonial policeman.

Yet the country that calls itself Myanmar is also a changed place. It's not just Suu Kyi's omnipresence that signals a remarkable transformation. In March, a nominally civilian government replaced the ruling junta. Despite vote rigging for the military-linked party in last year's elections and a leadership stacked with retired generals, the new government is starting to do something the previous regime failed to do: consider the needs of some 50 million Burmese. Economic reforms — from privatization to the creation of labor unions — are beginning to mend a tattered economy in which one-quarter of the country's budget is spent on the army. Some of the hundreds of political prisoners crowding Burma's notorious jails have been released. Once muzzled newspapers are loosening up, and the country's censorship czar has said that his bureau should be abolished. Even the country's flag and anthem were abruptly changed late last year (brighter colors, catchier tune), as if the regime wanted a visual and aural break from its disgraceful past. "It's a brave new Burma," a friend in Rangoon, the commercial capital, tells me. I laugh, but she's not joking.

Suu Kyi, having just celebrated her first anniversary of freedom from house arrest, is also looking forward. "I am cautiously optimistic," she tells me at the headquarters of her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "That's all I can say, that's all anyone can say." The NLD is doing more than talking. The same day in mid-November that U.S. President Barack Obama announced Clinton's visit to Burma, the NLD made a historic decision to re-enter politics — a space that didn't even exist until last year. Back in 1990, the NLD won elections that the military junta ignored. The woman who might have been Burma's Prime Minister spent most of the intervening two decades under house arrest. When the regime announced it would hold new elections in 2010, the NLD chose to boycott a surely sham contest.

But the surprisingly reformist leadership of President Thein Sein, a retired general and former junta member, has now persuaded the opposition force to reregister as a political party and contest the coming by-elections. Suu Kyi is running for a seat in parliament, something she could only do after the government changed electoral laws this year to allow former prisoners to run for office. "I am awed by the responsibility," she says. "We have a lot of work to do, and we are, as you might imagine, a bit rusty when it comes to all this."

In years past, Burma's military intelligence could arrest someone for possessing samizdat NLD pamphlets in their homes. Yet for a nation sheltered so long from open political debate, the hunger for civics knowledge in Burma is astonishing. Every time I visit, I have improbable discussions with young and old alike on things like federalism, constitutional amendments or Rousseau. The big political question now, of course, is whether these budding reforms will bring anything truly resembling democracy and a free market to Burma. Other countries in Asia, like Indonesia, have made the transition from military rule to democratic governance. Could Burma, one of the last remaining "outposts of tyranny," to use a U.S. designation, be next?

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