A few days prior to the commencement of the World Economic Forum (WEF) for East Asia held in Burma’s new capital, Naypyitaw, on 5 June 2013, I got to participate in a trip for Tai media by Transborder News, sponsored by Thailand’s Health Promotion Foundation. It was a chance to hear from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) regarding their views on political and social context in Burma in the aftermath of elections.
What are their impressions about the transformation, the holding of the WEF by their government and the 100% exposure of Burma to outside world?
It was my first time here. Someone who was here one year ago told me that in just one year, Rangoon has expanded rapidly with more traffic, traffic jam, better and faster communication infrastructure, albeit sporadic power outages.
He was no sure if the existing infrastructure has enough capacities to deal with the influx of changes.
And he wonders how will benefits from opening up the country trickle down to the majority of people?
We think, intellectuals in Burma also think, and may do so much much more than we do.
Koh Augnbwe and Koh Kyawzaw, former student leaders who campaigned for democracy in 1988 and former political prisoners who have just been released, and their colleagues from the ‘88 Generation Students Group’ plus Koh Matsan from Pongku Organization working to support CSOs in Burma, met with a group of journalists from Thailand on the fifth floor of CSO office, in downtown Rangoon.
The three senior activists took turn to share with us. In brief, in the past one year, they found more people dare to speak up and to think. Mass media have more chances to feature news and information and the government seems to have paid a little bit more attention to the people, though they are still annoyed by mass protests. Thus, in order to hold any public demonstration, permission has to be first sought otherwise the protesters could be arrested.
Burma’s CSOs seem to be active on three main issues including (1) campaign for constitutional amendment, and amendment of repressive laws and laws concerning the right to media freedom; (2) land ownership; and (3) wages and social safety net.
The three major issues are like pliers that help to squeeze the gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural people.
Through an interpreter, I asked them about their hope for Burma and how soon they will achieve what they dream.
According to Koh Augnbwe, he expects the Constitution shall be revised to meet the desire of people including to ensure that Members of Parliaments are directly chosen by people. At present, the Constitution requires that 25% of the seats in the Parliament go to the incumbent army officers, and 65% to former army officers who simply change to civilian uniforms.
“I could not dream too much. It might take 20-30 years to achieve that.”
Thinking to myself, I compare it to Thailand. His expectation is based on reality, not just dream. (From Sarit Thanarat dictatorial regime, it took Thailand around 40 years to have the 1997 Constitution.)
The hope of the 88 Generation Students Group echoes that of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Lately, she has been trying to advocate all sectors to gear toward changing the Constitution to make it become more democratic and to reduce military power.
We asked if the military would strike back? They said they were not sure. But though the military want to restore their power, it would not be easy as international community keeps a close vigil on the situation here.
It would be a big shame for us if the Thai military overtakes their Burmese counterparts and stages a coup in Thailand.
As for the exploitation of natural resources that has greatly affected livelihood and the environment in Burma, the 88 Generation Students Group mentioned that most of the projects that have caused problems were implemented during the military regime. But after the elections, several CSOs have been monitoring the situation making the number of damaging projects become less and the government seems to listen to dissenting voices better. Recently, they even called off three dam and power plant projects in almost the same time.
Our talk lasted for two hours. Though it was short, we managed to notice their enthusiasm. Such upbeat impression definitely stemmed from the frustration after decades of repression of their rights and liberties.
If they continue to work with progressive politicians, I am sure Burma will be stepping in to the right direction, though it may be slower than other nations.
Translated form Matichon Daily, 11 June 2013, ‘Grassroots World’ Column
By Pakphum Pongphai