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NEW YORK TIMES


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In Myanmar, changes win over some of country's skeptics

By New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:00 a.m. HST, Nov 30, 2011



YANGON, Myanmar » The waves of change sweeping Myanmar are trickling down to the broken sidewalks and potholed streets of this dilapidated city.

Automated teller machines, ubiquitous in the world's major cities but absent here during years of economic stagnation, are now being installed at a handful of banks.

Street vendors hawk coffee mugs, key chains and posters adorned with pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's main opposition leader, whose name and image were taboo during two decades of military dictatorship.

The government's changes -- rapid and unexpected, though still far from complete -- are winning over some of the country's deepest skeptics of the military-backed civilian government that came to power in March.

"What has happened in these last few months is a miracle for us," said Daw Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, an opposition politician and former political prisoner whose family suffered years of persecution by the military.

"To be frank, in the very beginning, I didn't believe a word of what they were saying," she said of the new government. "Now I believe what is happening is for the good of the people."

In a significant vote of confidence for the new government after years of international ostracism, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Myanmar on Wednesday. Workers have laid a fresh layer of sod and repainted the gates of Suu Kyi's house in anticipation.

Clinton's visit is the first by a secretary of state since 1955. The changes in Myanmar have provided an opening to better relations with the United States at a time when the Obama administration is courting Southeast Asian nations as China asserts its influence in the region.

Clinton will be touring Myanmar in the midst of what many see as a historic transformation to a new democracy.

Since his inauguration in March, President Thein Sein has worked with the country's newly established Parliament to pass a raft of new laws and regulations. Labor unions have been legalized, the Internet has been mostly freed of the heavy censorship imposed during military rule, and proposals are being drawn up to overhaul the country's dysfunctional banking system. The government has also freed a number of political prisoners.

As the pace of change accelerated in recent months, observers debated why the former military men leading the government would be willing to cede nearly absolute power to pursue democratic changes and embrace dissidents officials have persecuted for decades. Thein Sein was a member of the junta that repeatedly crushed dissent before becoming president.

The answer, according to one of the president's advisers, is that Thein Sein realized that the country could no longer ignore the world around it.

"The president was convinced about the global situation; he saw where the global stream was heading," said U Nay Zin Latt, the adviser, a businessman who had no political experience when he was recruited by the president.

In one of the most crucial moves for establishing the legitimacy of the new government, Thein Sein has successfully courted Suu Kyi. Her party, the National League for Democracy, recently said it would officially re-register and contest coming elections for a number of parliamentary seats.

Suu Kyi's views carry significant weight inside and outside the country. President Barack Obama called her before announcing Clinton's visit. Inside Myanmar, Suu Kyi is a mother figure whose decade and a half of house arrest earned her deep credibility and loyalty.

"When I talk to Aung San Suu Kyi, she says, 'Forget the past,"' said Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, an opposition leader. "She says have faith in Thein Sein. If she says that, we must have faith in him."

Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, who was imprisoned for seven years for opposing the military, has ample reasons to mistrust the government. Her father -- a former deputy prime minister who was in power during the last visit by a U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, in the 1950s -- was jailed for seven years. Her mother was detained for three years, as was her former husband.

But in an interview on Tuesday, she said she was very excited about Clinton's visit and her much-anticipated meeting with Suu Kyi.

"Let the two smart women talk," she said. "It's unbelievable that Mrs. Clinton is visiting us."

Not everyone in Myanmar is so enthusiastic about a visit that will grant the government some legitimacy, nor are they convinced of the leadership's sincerity. Sitting in the back room of his grocery store in Yangon, U Ko Ko Gyi, another former political prisoner, criticizes the government for the continued detention of other proponents of democracy.

Ko Ko Gyi was released Oct. 12 as part of an amnesty that the government offered as an olive branch to the opposition -- and a way to bolster Myanmar's image abroad. But hundreds of political prisoners remain in detention.

A recent comment at a news conference by Thein Sein that there are "no political prisoners -- all prisoners have broken the law" rankled Ko Ko Gyi and some other former political prisoners, who have a prominent place in Myanmar's opposition movement.

"He is denying reality," Ko Ko Gyi said of the president. "If the government is really democratic, why aren't they releasing the people who were sent to prison for advocating democracy?"

Others who question the country's ability to change quickly have focused on continuing ethnic strife, particularly on the borders with China and Thailand, and on the difficulties of overhauling the economic system.

Many of the government's changes focus on the economy, which after decades of neglect under military rule and years of Western sanctions, is finally showing early signs of the dynamism evident in the countries that surround it.

Yangon's roughly 170 hotels are filled with potential investors, foreign government delegations and tourists. The country is seeking to privatize its railroads and is continuing a program to sell state-owned real estate.

The government says it will issue licenses for car showrooms -- there are almost none in the country -- and has begun a program to allow the owners of the decades-old cars plying the country's roads to import newer models. Shipments have been arriving from Japan in recent weeks, to much fanfare. But in a measure of Myanmar's disparity with its neighbors, most of the "new" cars are more than 10 years old.

Myanmar's financial system remains one of the most rudimentary in Asia. Most transactions are carried out in cash. The country has no credit cards (partly because of Western sanctions, which ban financial dealings by Western companies). Automated teller machines were installed after the government's recent decision to lift a nine-year ban on them.

Longtime observers of Myanmar also worry about potential resistance to change among hard-liners in the government.

Nay Zin Latt, the president's adviser, said in an interview that Myanmar was no different from any country undergoing radical transformation.

"I don't see hard-liners and soft-liners," he said, "just different points of view."

"Some people don't want faster change." Others, he said, "say we are very much behind other countries, and we should go fast."






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