Insight: Testing the limits of freedom in new Burma

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 19, 2011 4:08 AM
Insight: Testing the limits of freedom in new Burma

By A Reuters Staff Reporter

MAYINGYI VILLAGE, Myanmar (Reuters) - Tun Aung knew there were plans for his village to be moved to make way for a multi-billion dollar industrial zone and deep-sea port, but the whole thing was hard to imagine.

Then one day last month he discovered a new road slicing through his family's cashew tree grove, part of a network that will link to a super-highway across southern Burma to Thailand.

"I am very angry about this," said the 56-year-old farmer, who said his village leader had agreed under pressure to have everybody relocate. "There was no compensation. This land wasn't bought (by me), it was handed down from my father."

The road is just one piece of a $50 billion deep water port and special economic zone that is meant to transform this wild landscape of beaches, small plantations and scrubland into Southeast Asia's largest industrial complex.

Au Bar Tha, a 57-year-old monk, is one of thousands in the area who face relocation because of the massive project. In the Myanmar ruled by generals, who never hesitated to use brutal force to achieve their ends, that would have been that.

But Myanmar under a new and nominally civilian government has shown itself to be more responsive to the will of people. It cancelled a $3.6 billion Chinese-led dam project in September following weeks of public outrage.

Inspired by that, a grassroots movement has emerged here to oppose the massive development. New legislation passed last month gives them the right to peacefully assemble. "I absolutely don't want to move," Au Bar Tha declares. "I will stand like a stone and if they want to move me they will have to lift me up."

Elsewhere in the country, former student activists who had eschewed politics since a 1988 democracy movement was brutally crushed, are testing the air again. Workers are beginning to organize. Exiles are being wooed to return.

As the former British colony embarks on its most dramatic changes since a 1962 military coup in what was then Burma, mega-projects like the 250 sq km (97 sq mi) Dawei Special Economic Zone hint at a rapid acceleration in both investment and development.

With a metal ruler, Au Bar Tha points at a spot on a photocopied map where a new $8 billion deep-sea port will be carved into the shore. He notes places where an oil refinery, a coal-fired power plant and a petrochemical factory will replace rice fields, cashew and rubber trees and jungle.

Then, he slides the ruler north to his village of Mayingyi and to the words adjacent to it. "What is a combined cycle power plant?" he asks earnestly, hoping rare visitors from outside the area might be able to enlighten him.

Dawei's position on the map highlights Myanmar's geostrategic importance as it emerges from its self-imposed isolation. Road and rail routes from the industrial zone, built by Thailand's biggest construction company, Italian-Thai Development Plc, will link Dawei's port to China, India and Southeast Asia.

In a country where a third of its 55 million people live on less than one U.S. dollar a day, Dawei is striking in its ambition. Super-highways, steel mills, power plants, shipyards, refineries, pulp and paper mills and a petrochemical complex are part of the plan, as are two golf courses and a holiday resort, according to Italian-Thai.

Up to 30,000 people, mostly impoverished rice, cashew and rubber farmers living in thatched-roof huts, must be moved during 10 years of construction, say local activists who are fighting for compensation for the displaced or to block construction of polluting projects.


The new activists take their inspiration from Myanmar's democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a proponent of non-violent resistance. Released from years of house arrest just over a year ago, she has rejoined the political process.

Suu Kyi had opposed the Myitsone dam and helped convince the government to suspend the project. That caught the eye of former activists such as Ba Htoo Maung.

Htoo Htoo, as he is known, was arrested on December 11, 1991, a day after Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was stabbed in the leg with a bayonet and beaten before spending the next 11 years behind bars for helping organize the 1988 protests.

After his release on March 9, 2003, Htoo Htoo gave politics a wide berth. He started a family and taught English and Burmese for a living. "Most people were afraid. I didn't even want to talk about politics."

When Buddhist monk-led protests erupted in 2007, Htoo Htoo stayed away. "Experience taught me a lot," he said in a quiet Yangon cafe. Those demonstrations, too, were soon crushed by the military.

This year, he noticed the tide turning.

Suu Kyi, once reviled by the military rulers and off-limits for the country's independent media, has been courted by the government after she was freed from years of house arrest last year. Her picture is everywhere -- on newspapers, posters, t-shirts and even key rings -- and she said she will run in a by-election for a seat in parliament.

Htoo Htoo is also inching back toward the political arena.

On August 8, friends who had also been active in the student movement invited him out to mark the 21st anniversary of a major student protest.

He decided to go "because the situation was starting to change". At the event, he met Suu Kyi and congratulated her on her meetings with government officials.

Htoo Htoo was encouraged but also concerned. The changes were so quick. He wondered whether the two entrenched sides in Myanmar's long-running political battle could be so easily reconciled.

He launched a movement he calls "Metta", a Buddhist word that roughly means goodwill or peace.

"We have no grudge. We are not interested in revenge," he said. "What we want is the country to change."

After Suu Kyi met President Thein Sein, Htoo Htoo was excited. The long-suppressed student activist in him resurfaced. He wanted to put together a mass public rally in Yangon Square, near city hall in the centre of town, in support of the dialogue.

He met Suu Kyi and sought her opinion.

"'The Lady' he explained, referring to Su Kyi's epithet, "said Metta is good. As for the mass movement, it is too early, she said. We cannot know who will join this mass movement with what ideas and what ambitions."


To say mass movements have struggled in Myanmar is an understatement. While other Asian countries have had military rulers, none have been so entrenched in every sector of society as in Myanmar in a bid to stamp out every whisper of dissent.

After the generals killed or jailed thousands in the 1988 demonstrations, they stepped up attacks on ethnic minority groups that have fought for autonomy since independence from Britain in 1948. The junta simply ignored a landslide election win in 1990 by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

Little wonder then that a labor movement never gained traction despite harsh working conditions for many in the country -- until October, when unions were legalized to the shocking surprise and relief of workers such as Ma Moe.

In July last year, she posted notices in the women's bathrooms of the garment factory where she worked on the outskirts of the former capital Yangon calling for a strike. Management responded with a small pay raise, and the strike was averted. But soon after, the harassment began.

The soft-spoken, 33-year-old was given more work than she could possibly complete, and hounded in other ways, she said. The trouble lasted more than a year before her boss gave her an ultimatum: quit or be fired.

She walked out.

"I cried," she said. "I was worried about the future because my family mainly depended on my salary." She said she earned between 80 cents and $1.50 a day, depending on overtime.

One of the first bills Thein Sein signed as the new president was a Labor Organization Law that legalized unions and, in theory, gave workers the right to strike.

As the economy advances, Myanmar may well emerge as a low-cost manufacturing hub alongside Vietnam and Bangladesh. Its once-flourishing garment industry was stifled by U.S. and European sanctions. Some expect it to rebound if sanctions are lifted, possibly next year or in 2013.

But the law fails in several crucial respects, said Phoe Phyu, a lawyer who represents disenfranchised workers and farmers. Workers can only strike with permission from authorities and grassroots unions are not allowed to have contact with international organizations, he said.

Conditions will change slowly as the country moves toward democracy, he said, but it is a long road ahead for workers such as Ma Moe. "The new law cannot change things for people like her," said the lawyer, who has been jailed twice for his work.


Walking the rutted streets of Yangon with its dilapidated colonial-era buildings, Phoe Phyu's comment rings true in other ways: it is easy to see how Myanmar will change, but how progress could be excruciatingly slow.

The city seems ill-prepared for a wave of investment that could come if sanctions are lifted. It has no skyscrapers to house banks; no modern shopping malls for a new consumer generation. Wheezing Japanese cars from the 1970s and 1980s dominate the streets.

It's hard to believe today that Burma in the early 20th century was one of Asia's richest nations and a shining part of the British empire. After seizing Yangon in 1852 and anglicizing its name to Rangoon, Britain developed the area into its administration base, building law courts, parliament buildings, shady parks and botanical gardens. Rangoon University, founded in 1878, became one of Asia's premier universities. Its infrastructure rivaled London's.

Today, chronic power outages and deteriorating buildings are constant reminders of decades of mismanagement that began in 1962 with a disastrous "Burmese Way to Socialism" adopted by the then-leader, General Ne Win. It led to sweeping nationalization and global isolation for the resource-rich country.

In the centre of Yangon, at one of its hippest restaurants, however, Phyu Phyu Tin knows Myanmar's potential.

The 38-year-old managing partner of Monsoon Restaurant and Bar, with a menu that includes dishes from all the countries of Indochina, can trace her family's roots through the prosperous British colonial era.

Her great-grandfather owned enough property to give each of his children a house. Her grandfather worked for the British consulate and spoke better English than Burmese. Her father, Nyunt Tin, a fighter pilot-turned-diplomat, was posted to Hong Kong as Consul General and is now in parliament.

After years of living abroad, Phuy Phuy Tin felt the pull of her homeland in 2003 and opened the restaurant. Now that the country is poised for take off, she and her family are preparing to launch a construction company. Her little sister, Zar Chi Tin, who is living in London, plans to return and join in the business.

The Myanmar diaspora numbers in the millions, including refugees and exiles, and Thein Sein has invited them to return home to help develop the country.

"We are very happy, especially for the next generation," she said, reflecting the optimism that has washed over the country.

"Now we have reason for them to come back. And I think many in the younger generation will come back."

(Editing by Jason Szep and Bill Tarrant)