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Myanmar: Cautious Optimism for Democracy

Near the top of a long, covered stairway leading to a golden monastery overlooking the administrative town of Kalaw in the hills of Myanmar’s southern Shan state, a Burmese man and I attempted to communicate. He spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese. He tried to say something. I didn’t understand. I tried to tell him that I didn’t understand; he didn’t understand. Then he said ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’, the global icon of opposition to military rule in Myanmar and head of the National League of Democracy (NLD) party, and I indicated that I knew her name. His face lit up and he broke out into a beaming smile, followed by attempts to aggressively shake my hand and express positive feelings in any way he could without actually being able to say anything that I would understand. For about ten minutes, this was the extent of our conversation, the only point of mutual understanding hidden between myriad ways to say “I don’t understand.”

If this were an isolated incident, I would have let it pass: I wanted to avoid a Thomas Friedman-esque understanding of political change based on the opinions of the first cab driver you encounter. (Important note: the first cab driver I met in Myanmar spoke great English and worked as a radio operator on ships all over the world. We had a great conversation. I learned a lot from him.) But throughout Myanmar, whether on the streets of Yangon or the hills of Kalaw — and in conversations with locals and foreigners alike — it became clear that this was far more systemic. Everywhere, everyone wanted to express similar feelings: “Aung San Suu Kyi — very good!” “I definitely voted for the NLD!” “The military gov’t is corrupt and stupid!” Etc.

Coming from China, whose central government is further cracking down on political dissent and activism, the open and frank discussion of politics and unreserved disdain for the previous era of military rule that pervades the streets of Myanmar is as foreign to me as fish-paste noodles for breakfast (delicious) or clear blue skies (also delicious). There seems to be a collective release among the population of pent up frustrations built up over 53 years of military or military-backed rule, unfair elections, violent suppression of resistance, and economic concentration in the hand of military elites.

But it is a cautious optimism: even ardent supporters of the NLD are trying very hard to keep their expectations in check. State institutions have a long path to go, and so many things can go, and have gone, wrong amid cycles of hope and failure to move toward democracy. The NLD has to maintain a delicate balance to keep many constituencies happy while building effective governance institutions that have been missing for decades. “Hopes are high, but so too is skepticism born of half a century of military dictatorship and the memories of earlier, lost moments of promise,” writes Trevor Wilson. Continue reading