Most every city on earth is festooned with ads promoting one mobile phone service or another. Until recently, Yangon (Rangoon) was an exception. But today, brand new, bright red umbrellas emblazoned with the logo of Ooredoo shade curbside food stalls, while blue placards advertise the sale of Telenor top-up cards from nearly every storefront.
The two international mobile operators both launched in Myanmar (Burma) last month, and for the first time, connectivity is available to a wide swath of citizens. Not long ago, a SIM card for the government-run NPT mobile network (the only option available) cost upward of $1000 USD. Now, with the opening of the market, a SIM card costs $1.50—on par with other countries in the region.
This progress is the latest and perhaps most obvious hallmark of Myanmar’s much celebrated opening, which began in 2010 with the release of many political prisoners including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Few of the reforms are irreversible, however, and with elections scheduled for late next year, how the next year plays out will determine whether this country continues down the road to democracy or reverts to military authoritarianism.
Myanmar last held national elections in 2010, but the National League for Democracy (NLD), the country’s primary opposition party, declined to participate because of hopelessly unjust electoral laws and predictable fraud. Not surprisingly, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Myanmar’s military-linked ruling party, won nearly every seat in parliament. Continue reading “Myanmar Elections: Many Questions”→
Cebu City, Philippines – In October I wrote about the halting, confusing, but encouraging political reforms in Burma (Myanmar) over the past year. It’s been an exciting few weeks since then. At the ASEAN summit in Bali last month, President Obama announced that Secretary of State Clinton would go to Burma– the first visit of a Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Yangon in 1955. The decision to visit, advertised as a test of Burma’s commitment to democratic reform, was understood widely as a small carrot to encourage further progress. Many, however, have criticized the Obama administration for rushing to reward one of the world’s most despotic regimes for what have been mostly cosmetic, reversible changes.
The move was made possible largely thanks to the generous political cover of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s foremost opposition leader and President Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, which sat out last year’s elections in protest, has decided to contest an upcoming election. Aung San Suu Kyi will herself run in the election, and is all but certain to be filling a seat in parliament. Though she has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest and has as good reason as anyone to suspect the motives of President Thein Sein’s incipient reforms, Aung San Suu Kyi has been upfront in her readiness to meet the government’s reforms in good faith.
Secretary Clinton sat down with Aung San Suu Kyi– it was their first face-to-face meeting after much previous correspondence– and met with President Thein Sein, addressing a number of issues that have kept the U.S. and Burma apart. Atop the agenda was Burma’s collusion with North Korea on missile and (possibly) nuclear technology. Secretary Clinton also pushed Thein Sein to continue internal reforms by freeing political prisoners and resolving ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups.
Coming out of the visit, Secretary Clinton announced that the U.S. would relax some restrictions on economic development aid, allowing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to work in Burma, and promising $1.2 million in health, education and humanitarian projects to be administered by the United Nations. She and Thein Sein also discussed the possibility of upgrading diplomatic relations and exchanging ambassadors– a move that Aung San Suu Kyi has also advocated.
My Thai visa was set to expire on Saturday, so I set out from Kamphaeng Phet, boarding the morning bus to Mae Sot. The Moei river divides Mae Sot, Thailand from Myawaddy, Myanmar, and by crossing the Friendship Bridge and coming back again, I’d get a fresh 15 days stamped in my passport. Seemed like a prime deal, so off I went, expecting to be home that afternoon. (A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour…)
One bus ride and one bowl of noodles later, I was riding the back of a motorbike, eyes squinting into the raindrops smattering my face, a satisfied grimace curled on my lips: I was going to one of the most repressive countries on earth, a country (relatively) few curious foreign eyes have seen since the junta took over in 1962: exotic Burma. The bike pulled up to the iron gates, and I strode to the immigration booth. A window snapped open and a woman’s head popped out in a military cap. “Help you, sir?”
“I’m going over there,” I pointed at Burma, like Napoleon at Russia.
“Sorry sir, border closed.”
“No cross! Border closed one year.”
“Wait. What? Why?”
In her turn, she pointed across the river: “Over there, is a war.”