Lessons From Myanmar
Lessons From Myanmar / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila
14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, Yangon, Myanmar, 2 September 2016 — During his
visit to Cuba, US President Barack Obama mentioned the changes in Burma
(now Myanmar) as an example of the most recent democratic transition
from a fierce military dictatorship that lasted over half a century.
Since then, the idea of an exchange between the opposition and Cuban
civil society and their counterparts in Myanmar was developed. Today
this political and cultural contact is a reality full of very valuable
lessons that can only be appreciated by seeing how changes take place
and are managed in real time, the interactions between contending forces
and their interests, the pros and cons, the alliances and the ruptures,
the shared joys and disappointments of a frustrating process, which many
say, is just beginning.
From the air, the tremendous difference in infrastructure and
development in Myanmar and, for example, its neighbor Thailand, is
remarkable. It is like when you leave Miami and then fly over Cuba. It
is clear that this country was left out of the democratic, educational
and technological changes that catapulted the so-called Asian Tigers.
At a time when those countries focused on global integration with
millions of young people ready to conquer the art of creating products
and services on a grand scale, Myanmar’s military dictatorship chose
total ostracism, shutting off the country like a strongbox to avoid any
“foreign influence.” It always tried to keep the county semi-enslaved in
the service of an army that, like an octopus, controlled the social,
economic and spiritual life of this nation, located exactly on the other
side of the world.
At the airport, going through immigration is somewhat tense because the
military is not yet entirely accustomed to looking at tourists as
ordinary people. To alleviate this problem they have thoroughly replaced
all possible customs and immigration clerks, placing in these positions
young people who are a lot more open and unprejudiced, and who even smile.
Myanmar currently receives just over a million tourists a year, an
insignificant figure not only compared to its neighbors, but in
proportion to its nearly 60 million inhabitants. This figure, however,
is growing due to democratic changes, which in turn attract many investors.
Currency exchange offices accept the US dollar, the euro and the
Singapore dollar, but in order to pay for anything in any one of these
currencies, you have to be sure the bill is not the least bit wrinkled,
because they won’t accept it. And don’t panic if you see people spitting
out a red substance on the street. It is not blood, but rather a pigment
that comes from a mix of herbs and is constantly chewed, as in Bolivia.
On the streets of Yangon there are no motorbikes. Here superstitions are
very important even when making policy decisions. In a nearby country it
happened that there was a wave of crime in which the criminals used
motorbikes to move around and perpetuate attacks, so the military junta
completely banned them in the capital “just in case.”
In Myanmar men wear a kind of wide skirt that is adjusted through a knot
just below the navel, without underwear. Women are often seen adjusting
the typical costume that covers them from the ankles to the neck, an
elegant garment emphasizing the sensuous curves of a perfect waist, as
described by George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days.
They are as thin “as sticks” with shapely legs and smooth hair that
falls in perfect shapes… no thanks to the gym or expensive treatments,
but from a traditional diet based on vegetables, plus genetics and a
life marked from childhood by hard work.
Incredibly decent and helpful, one and all, the citizens of Myanmar grab
your heart with their extraordinary mixture of simplicity and nobility,
probably a reflection of the basic teachings of Buddhism, among which
one stands out in particular: “We must live to give love, not only to
our friends, but also to our enemies.”
Although the country is an infinite melting pot of ethnicities and
religions, Buddhism predominates as a belief, significantly influencing
the moral base and value system that rules society. The presence of the
monks and their temples (pagodas) is everywhere. You cannot touch the
monks and much less can they touch a woman. They, however, can touch you
The monks are greatly venerated and were the protagonists in several of
the largest protests against the abuses of the military power and in
support of changing the terrible economic situation of the country. The
majority of these demonstrations were held in the late eighties and were
called the Saffron Revolution, after the color of the monks’ clothing.
Many of them were sent to prison and served long sentences as political
In general, those who were young students in 1988 are called “Generation
88,” in memory of the heroic attitude that many of these boys, some of
them mere children, assumed in defense of their country and their
rights, paying a high cost in innocent lives at the hands of the armed
That sacrifice laid the foundation for the process that is happening
today in the country, overthrowing for the first time the one-party
military rule in that year. There then emerged 235 political parties,
which were more or less consolidated into 91 ahead of the 1990
elections, the first competitive elections since 1948.
The National League for Democracy (LND), which already had more than
three million members (of which, one million are women), swept the
elections getting a historic triumph that gave them the capacity to
govern, but the defeated military didn’t go along, they broke the rules,
ignored the election results and imprisoned the leaders of the winning
party, among them its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
With this coup, the military frustrated the aspirations of the whole
nation for freedom and progress, but that would be temporary.
In 2011, after the release of Aung San and thousands of political
prisoners, new elections were called, but several of the most
influential parties chose not to participate, citing the obvious lack of
confidence in the military and demanding a change in the Constitution to
offer real guarantees to civil parties.
The constitution is the legal instrument that guarantees the supremacy
of the military class, still today. The constitution establishes that
25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, regardless
of the results of the election. The trap closes completely with the
provision, in addition, that the constitution can only be changed with
more than 75% of the votes, so it is mathematically impossible to modify
anything, no matter how small, without the consent of the military.
Not satisfied with this, the constitution gives the military permanent
control of the country’s most important ministries: Borders, Armed
Forces and the most strategic, Interior. This latter entity, in addition
to the usual functions of controlling order, in Myanmar also controls
all public administration, a great part of the economy, and also
education. The decisions of the military in these institutions are
virtually autonomous and unquestionable.
For these reasons, although the country is very happy with the second
victory of the NLD in 2015 and the rise to power of Aung San, many
believe that as long as the military holds on to all that power they
will not have a true democracy.
Aung San and her party assumed from the beginning a conciliatory
attitude, trying to reach agreements with the military leadership that
will directly benefit citizens, and working so that the country can
begin to emerge from its deep poverty, making it easier and offering
guarantees for both foreign investment and internal trade.
These negotiations have been possible in part because the current top
leader of the military and Aung San have a certain personal empathy and
have maintained a constructive dialogue. This aspect was strongly
criticized by other political parties and many civil society
organizations, who demand clarifications and that the military take
responsibility for its crimes, as well as the release of political
prisoners who remain in jail.
Many of these prisoners were sanctioned for “resistance” against
attempts of certain members of military or their associates to take away
all or part of their land.
Beyond these issues, thorny and inconclusive, there are hundreds of
examples of positive transformations that quickly began to empower
people, especially young people. In 2012, a SIM card for a cellphone
cost about $1,000. Today you can buy one for just $1.50 and it provides
completely free access to the internet, creating overnight more than 10
million internet users ravenously exploring the web, creating new ways
to organize and discuss issues that previously didn’t exist. In Myanmar,
as in Cuba, meeting with others without permission from the military
junta was prohibited.
Another important change was to eliminate the tax demanded by the
military of 100% on the purchase value from anyone who acquired a
vehicle. This was reduced to between 3% and 5%, which has facilitated
the importation of millions of light trucks and buses for public
transport. This measure represents an accelerator for the growing
economy that is trying to flourish, but which in turn poses great
challenges of infrastructure, because at certain times the city
collapses in traffic jams of a size never expected or imagined.
Impressive and positive is also the great work being done in the country
through hundreds of supportive organizations and NGOs which, along with
the new authorities, are contributing their experience on issues of all
kinds: entrepreneurship, agriculture, digital commerce, the broad-based
development of women, political participation, mediation in ethnic
conflicts, issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, water
purification and conservation, etc., through training in systems
provided not only in the capital but in the most remote villages of the
14 states that make up the vast territory of the country.
All this cooperation has also contributed to statistical studies,
surveys and research to bring to light for the first time in history the
true picture of the country in very sensitive areas such as human
trafficking, the sex trade of children, drugs, discrimination,
recruitment of children by ethnic guerrillas, etc., so that from this
information the state can implement programs and make decisions to
improve the situation.
The media, now much more free, foster discussions of all these issues
and put pressure on the authorities from their platforms, both physical
and digital. The young people working on a Yangon newspaper talk about
the official media after the change, saying “nobody recognizes them,”
because “they changed their stale and censored discourse for another
kind of more dynamic journalism, objective and real; they are now
becoming real competitors for us.”
This shows that journalism’s heart was always beating, but it was
subjugated by a regime that annulled it and appeared more before the people.
The young Burmese man who acted as my translator said, “For me, the most
important thing is that people are no longer afraid, they laugh now,
before they were serious, now they dream of work and prosperity; before,
most young people regretted being born here… For myself, I’m not going
Source: Lessons From Myanmar / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila – Translating