Five Days in Burma
By AUNG ZAW Thursday, February 23, 2012

(Page 2 of 4)

People would come up to me and suddenly start talking about the political situation in the country. When I asked one restaurant owner who approached me what she thought of the recent reforms, she answered bluntly in English: “It's all just for show.”

My next meeting that day was with senior writers and editors. As I sat down, I could feel their anger toward  press censorship board officials. The mood only got worse after a few whiskeys. When I asked some of them if I should try to set up a publication inside Burma, they warned me that it would involve entering into an “unholy alliance” with the authorities. I recalled something a censorship official had already told me: If we wanted to work in Burma, we would have to go through the censorship board.

Other members of the exiled media who have visited Burma since the government started relaxing press controls last year have come away with the same impression that I got during my trip: They say the government wants to present itself as more press-friendly, but in reality, it still isn't ready to allow us to operate freely inside Burma. In one form or another, restrictions will remain.

Another problem we would face in returning to Burma is the fact that the media there is already dominated by relatives and cronies of senior military officials. Although most are apologists for the military-dominated government, many are also opportunists, eager to use photos of Aung San Suu Kyi to boost circulation. In short, they are completely unprincipled, and see the media as just another way to make money. As Dr Phone Win, the founder of the NGO Mingalar Myanmar, warned me, we would be swallowed up in seconds if we tried to enter this market unprepared. 

My misgivings about working inside Burma were also reinforced by a casual remark made by a retired senior intelligence officer I happened to meet on that first day. “Can't you tone it down? If you want to come back again, you have to be less critical,” he said in a friendly voice. It was a message that made my first night's sleep in Burma an uneasy one.

Early the next morning, I received an urgent message: “Come to Naypyidaw as soon as possible.” We quickly jumped into a van and sped off. The road to the new capital was empty and wavy—after a few hours drive, we stopped at a rest area where we had a wonderful lunch.

After a few more hours in the van, we finally saw the “Welcome to Nay Pyi Taw” sign. It was a welcome sight, as it was already 3:30 pm and we were worried that we would be late. As we entered the city, I recalled how many stories I had written about the many secrets surrounding Burma's new capital. The biggest mystery—apart from the reason for creating it in the first place—was how many billions of dollars had been spent on this monument to military supremacy.

After a brief handshake with Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who was leaving the ministry's compound as I arrived, I went straight to the office of Ye Htut, the director general of the ministry.

The former colonel was a well-read man who had written several articles and published a few books, including a translation of “Decision Points,” the autobiography of former US President George W Bush. We spoke for a few hours, and I was impressed by his candidness, even if I wasn't convinced that the government wasn't about to usher in a new era of media freedom. As I left the building, I met other officials, including a deputy minister who sounded like he was an avid reader of The Irrawaddy.

That evening, I met the director of the president's office Zaw Htay. Over dinner, we discussed various issues related to Burma, including its role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China's influence, US sanctions, ethnic conflict and Aung San Suu Kyi. We didn't agree on many issues, but that wasn't our purpose anyway. I just wanted to offer my perspective as a journalist, and felt that the exchange of views was worthwhile.

At 4 o'clock the next morning we left Naypyidaw for the long trip back to Rangoon, where we were scheduled to meet Aung San Suu Kyi at noon. The beauty of the dawn landscape as we drove through central Burma made it impossible for me to return to sleep.

When we reached the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), we had to wade through a large crowd to get inside to see the party's famous leader. During our brief meeting—which had to be kept short to fit into Suu Kyi's busy campaign schedule—she explained that the party had decided to join this year's by-elections despite boycotting the vote in 2010 because the political situation in Burma is changing everyday. We also spoke about the international reaction to recent changes.

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TAH Wrote:
Thank you so much for sharing your account in Burma and your thoughts. I think your account and thoughts will also represent many people's who are both inside and outside of Burma. We are all fooled around by current civilian regime and those who go back will be fooled around, if not spun around, this time, in "chicken basket" with no way out. These former soldiers are just cheating!

oliver Wrote:
Almost nothing changes things faster than money. When mostly driven by greed the changes money brings are usually for the worse, but if they blunt Burma's bayonet then some good will come out of this. I wonder how long the military cronies will dread the lifting of sanctions once they realize how much more money they could make? As you suggest, it is early days yet.

K Wrote:
Advancements made in political arena has not been trickled down to important sectors such as health and education that directly affect welfare of majority of population. Next time when you visit Yangon, walk down a few blocks to Yangon General Hospital to get a glimpse of an example of country's outdated and crumble infrastructure.

Ayokso Wrote:
Great article! My most recent trip back was also around the same time Aung Zaw was there. Had very similar thoughts, feelings and experiences as him. Seeing Naypyidaw made me feel sadder than impressed. It is really weird. Not to be too critical, but the highway there will have to be brought up to specs sooner rather than later. How about parallel publications for "The Irrawaddy"? Each from within and outside the country?

Denise Nichols. Wrote:
A moving account of an exile's return.

Tawtha Wrote:
Very glad 4 UR trip home. Recent events in Burma are truly interesting.There always a director/s in any play and urge to remember Bogyoke's speech just B4 he led Anti Fascist revolution against Japanese Fascist Army "Annihilate the closest enemy".

Patriot Wrote:
Yes,very interesting and very informative.Its is TRUE what Ludu Sein Win Said "cunning and manipulative and would not give up power easily". Another one to take note of is"media is already dominated by relatives and cronies of senior military officials". They have dominated not only the media but also "Business".Look at Zaw Zaw,Teza etc.Who are they?And now they want sanctions to be lifted,why?
Please let those who are very eager to rush in to do business know all these facts.

htunwai Wrote:
This is my 1st visit to you,but thank u so much for sharing ur views on current situation.

“It's all just for show.”
Until and unless the 2008 Nargis constitution is SCRAPPED and Burma's capital moved back to Rangoon, I would bury my bones in an alien land as a FREE MAN and for the BEST as well.

Ma Thitsa Wrote:
I just read Ko Aung Zaw's trip to Burma for five days and felt the honesty and sincerity in his words.. I have been out of my homelandfor three decades and Irrawaddy Journal has been my favorite to obtain knowledge about the issues and events and keep track of my beloved home land.....As a foreign citizen I had no choice since the Burmese passport was revoked...the dream that kept me going alone in a foreign land was the contribution that I hoped I could make one day for enriching our education sector.... I am still hoping that we can stand with pride again in the global community very soon.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Glad Ko Aung Zaw made that trip to give us a low down. A booster dose of the old country even if it was only five days must do him good. And Ludu U Sein Win got it right.

The Irrawaddy has earned its place in history and in Burmese hearts. Only its place on Burmese soil remains to be realized. Surely it won't be long.

kkloveburma Wrote:
Even if this is a thorough analysis, still there are so many things left to know. Poor farmers, massive deficit budgets due to mismanagement, inflation, central bank owned by the generals, cronyism widespread, Phone Win's cheating, other INGOs and Local NGO's cheating including UN agencies, the quasi-civilian government's still exploiting its own people, lack of good governance, lack of transparency, NLD lacks intellectuals, USDP's cheating and lacks intellectuals, Daw Aung Suu Kyi's weakness to know how to unite this nation, not qualify in local and exile media, Burmese youths who lack all knowledge and qualify education except Korean movies, that's why NLD has to field good for nothing pop stars as its candidates, etc. Wish learning more.

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bullet The ‘Rule of Law’ in Burma

bullet New Doors are Opening in Burma

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