Burma: Coming to terms with democracy

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Tucked away from the frustration of Yangon’s rush hour traffic, they sat attentively in the third-floor conference room of the downtown Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Chan Nyien Aung ambled around the room, talking as he went; the group of 30 (mostly women) wrote furiously in their notepads. Behind him stood a whiteboard. Scribbled on it in blue felt were words and phrases much discussed in the new Burma, among them ‘democracy’, ‘civil duties’, ‘government versus governance’. The room followed his every movement. “Power to the people,” Aung added, finding space on the overburdened board.

With a smile on his face, the 29-year-old called me to the front of the class. His organisation, Charity-Oriented Myanmar, is one of the many such groups travelling across the country, hosting workshops designed to educate everyone from politicians to ordinary citizens about the functioning of democracies. Translating fluidly, Aung put my simple questions to the varied audience. Their answers indicated a country still struggling to establish its identity.

“Before today, did any of you know about democracy or what it means to be a democracy?” My question was met with complete silence. Aung tried to urge an answer out of them. They looked at each other blankly, not used to taking the lead, unsure of themselves, but eventually came back with a unanimous “no”. Freedoms that were lost in the 1962 military coup have now been thrust upon a people so used to toeing the line for 50 years that they seem a little afraid of their sudden liberty. More recently, the student-led uprising of 1988 led to the military tightening its grip.

“During my schooldays,” recalls Shwe Shwe Latt, “we had libraries in our schools. We debated and discussed in our classrooms; our education was vibrant. We had youth programmes, sports, cultural activities, social events.” Latt heads the Phan Tee Eain Consultancy, a group that deals with the political empowerment of women. “But after 1988, everything changed.” Since the famous 8888 Uprising and its fierce, widespread demands for democracy and a multi-party system, people told me, the military leadership made a conscious decision to “dumb down” the education system. Realising that education and awareness was a source of power and protest, debate, discussion and other extracurricular activities were virtually shut down. The syllabus was reoriented; information on democracy, international relations and world history was removed, while the country’s history was rewritten to suit the rulers of the day. The idea was to create a subservient population.

The result is that most people don’t know how to ask questions. Asking a question is wrong, something to be feared, something with negative repercussions. So much so that groups like Latt’s, or Charity-Oriented Myanmar, have to help Members of Parliament frame questions for their sessions, sometimes even writing them out line by line. Latt acknowledges that “the government is trying to bring in educational reform”. But there is still so far to go. “Knowledge is power,” she says, “and the gap with the rest of the world is so vast now that I am worried about the next generation.”

According to Latt, in schools today, fearful of the consequences of failing a student, teachers not only give students the question, but also the answers. “When I was young, we had to learn the whole book; the teachers now give out the questions and answers, but students don’t even know which answer matches which question. Everything is memorised and regurgitated.” The situation is similar in universities. In fact, most universities are distance-learning centres and students only have to be physically present for 20 days of the academic year. There is very little practical learning. “I studied computers at university,” explains Nway Nway Tun, who works with Aung, “but only in theory. At the end of the three years, I’d not seen a computer.”

I asked my next question. “In a show of hands, how many of you read the newspaper or watch the news every day?” They giggled, again looking at each other for support. Not a single hand went up. Aung said, “That’s why I’m here. To teach people to read, to gather information, to question the system and truly understand democracy.” Most people in Burma, he says, are yet to develop the capacity to digest, judge and analyse information for themselves, but it is part of the difficult transition from a military dictatorship to a more open society.

Of course, a major reason why newspaper-reading is an acquired taste is that the people of Myanmar, for the better part of half a century, have had access only to government-sponsored propaganda sheets. Most reporting was to praise the state’s achievements and cover official funerals. Today, while there is some degree of press freedom — the censor board was dissolved in 2012, and as a rough barometer of progress, Burma has moved up 18 places in the Press Freedom Index run by Reporters Without Borders to rank 169 (India, on the other hand, has slipped nine places to 140) — the cost of newspapers can be prohibitive.

Newspapers in Delhi cost Rs 5. Similarly, government newspapers in Myanmar cost Rs 4; private dailies, though, are sold for Rs 14 and newsweeklies can be bought for nearly Rs 80. “The cost of production itself is so high that just the printing cost for each (Rs 14) newspaper is Rs 9,” explains Soe Myint, the managing director of Mizzima, the first newspaper in exile to return to Myanmar in 2012. “Creating readership is tough. How can you expect them to change their habits when they’re strapped for cash and private papers are more expensive than the government ones?”

Back in the conference room, our discussion was interrupted by a sound as irritatingly familiar in Burma as it is in India — the Nokia ringtone. A young girl, sitting in the third row, groped in her bag as the rest of the class glared at her.

The mobile phone is on its way to revolutionising Myanmar. Just one year ago, a single SIM card cost $2,000. Now one can be obtained legally for $1.50 through a government lottery, or for anything between $25 and $60 in the (very open) black market (the average monthly income is $60). As a result, mobile phones can be found everywhere in the big cities. Six million Burmese, or 10 percent of the population, have their own phones and the impact is already being felt in a nation once starved of information.

In Burma, where communication was a luxury and the Internet was heavily monitored, mobile phones have changed everything, particularly as a way for people to monitor the government and criticise official wrongdoing. Just a few months ago, in a first-of-its-kind situation, protesting farmers in the Chin State called a press conference to rail against the government and it was covered by the media. The reforms are still recent and only 6.5 percent of the population has access to the Internet, much of it still on slow, unreliable connections, but improvements to access and quality are expected to be rapid (regulators and operators expect the number to go up to 10 percent by the end of the year). One Burmese survey in 2010 suggested that blogging had increased by 25 percent since the previous year, and this before the reforms of September 2011 when international news websites and sites critical of the Burmese government were made accessible. (Since those reforms, news websites, both domestic and foreign, have become the most viewed items online.) In the present climate, particularly with authorities committed to doing away with censorship and with the general election looming, expect Burmese political blogs to mushroom.

The next big step for Burma’s democratic transition is the 2015 General Election. Like most of the country, the people in Aung’s class rallied around one name — Aung San Suu Kyi. “I think that Daw Suu will look after the country like a mother does,” suggested an elderly woman seated next to the pillar at the centre of the room. “But having spent so much time under house arrest, I am not sure if she will be able to keep the country together.” In every city I travelled to in Burma, “Daw Suu is our leader, she will be the president” was the common refrain. It’s not scientific, a rough, anecdotal and still early opinion poll; but in my experience, Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), are the people’s choice, as they were back in 1990.

For all the vocal support, people seem to be unaware of, or oblivious to, Suu Kyi’s precarious political standing and the restrictions still in place in Burma’s fledgling democracy. Under the controversial 2008 Constitution, Suu Kyi, whose husband (the writer and academic Michael Aris; he died in 1999) was a foreign national and whose children are foreign nationals, cannot hold the post of President even if her party wins the election. To have this clause amended, the NLD would need a three-fourths parliamentary majority.

The catch is that constitutionally, 25 percent of seats in Parliament are reserved for the military. The constitution also grants the military a veto and the right to take control if it deems that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Chapter XI of the Constitution allows the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC) to impose martial law, suspend Parliament and rule directly if a state of emergency is declared. Though a state of emergency can only be declared by the President, they must do so in coordination with the NDSC. In effect, the military can depose a sitting government in a constitutionally approved coup.

Freedoms in Burma, says Salai Isaac Khen, the executive director of the Gender Development Initiative, come with trapdoors. “Thirty months is not enough time for self-reliance and freedom,” he argues. “It is important to remember that our present leadership has been brought up in the military environment, even the Speaker is a military man. A couple of years cannot magically turn them into democratic leaders.” Many Burmese believe that the present leadership has been carefully selected by the former military rulers to ensure their safety.

There is the theatre of democracy, the public show of political prisoners being pardoned. But, as was pointed out to me, the government keeps arresting new activists, and the men who tortured and killed innocent people are still active. Much is made of the people’s newly granted freedom of speech, but Section 505(b) of the Penal Code carries a three-year sentence for insulting the government, a clause that is being used to arrest many political activists. The Constitution also gives people the right to protest, but you have to take permission from the government to protest against the government or, again, court arrest.

Burma’s political awakening, its opening up, however guarded, has led to a massive influx of foreign investment. That influx of cash might be why the army is content with allowing, for now at least, the transition into carefully controlled democracy. People are optimistic that the investment will mean jobs. “I think that in another year or so, the job market will be flooded,” says Aung Shan, a 23-year-old scooter driver and tour guide in Mandalay. “I haven’t studied beyond Class X — I had to leave school to support my family — but I speak basic English. I hope I get a job in an international company.” But not everyone is so hopeful. “Because of our history, our education standards are very low,” explained a young man at the YWCA when I asked them about jobs. “Yes, when foreign companies come, there will be jobs, but we can only get the lower level jobs.”

Over 80 percent of Burma’s population is engaged in a struggling agriculture sector and the country needs to create 200,000 jobs a year just to maintain its present GDP. There has been a massive boom in the country’s infrastructural development: multi-storey buildings line the Yangon skyline, and the capital Nay Pyi Taw, a near ghost town, has an 18-lane highway leading to the parliament (but no cars). However, none of this has improved the purchasing power of the local population, leading to a steady migration to the cities in search of jobs, and all the social unrest that accompanies such an exodus.

This is not democracy. Not just yet. Burma is at the beginning of a long road; the good news is that the road leads to democracy. The people are still unsure of where they stand, what their freedoms are and how to expand those freedoms. They’ll have to adapt fast, organise, learn their rights and duties, understand that they now control their erstwhile political masters. Even those in power — the government, the military — are confused, wary of the new democracy they have helped usher in. The military is still intent on controlling the pace of the transition and until it loosens its grip, there will be challenges to its authority — arrests and even deaths. But once a country takes those first steps on that long road, there is no going back.

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