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Inside Myanmar’s charge for change toward democracy

October 11, 2015 at 4:53 PM EDT
After decades of military dictatorship, Myanmar will soon hold a nationwide election for all the seats in parliament not reserved for the military. Leading the charge for democratic change there is world-famous activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Kira Kay of the the Bureau for International Reporting has this report from the ground in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi is pushing for a government that reflects the will of the people.

KIRA KAY: In a small town in Central Myanmar, also known as Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, the world-famous democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, is running for re-election.

She’s trying to hold the seat in parliament she first won in 2012, after the country’s military regime finally ended her 15 years of house arrest.

Now 70-years-old and known as mother Suu to her supporters, she leads Myanmar’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We will try to build a government that reflects the will of the people and respects the people!

KIRA KAY: But Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from ever serving as Myanmar’s president. In the 2008 constitution, the military regime excluded anyone with foreign family members from holding the highest office. Her late husband was British; so are her two sons.

Right now, the National League for Democracy holds less than seven percent of the seats in parliament. But if her party does well enough in November, she may have leverage to negotiate an end to the ban.

KHIN OHN HTAY, NLD SUPPORTER: Only if we win this election can we follow the true democratic path of Mother Suu. Only then will our country develop. That is why this election is important!

THAN MYA, NLD SUPPORTER: The people will have equal rights. That is not the case right now!

KIRA KAY: And that was not the case 25 years ago, when Myanmar’s military refused to recognize the results of the first time the NLD won a national election.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: In 1990, you voted for our National League for Democracy. But the government didn’t give power to the NLD. Instead, they tried to break us apart and oppressed us. This is a second chance for people to pick a government that they want!

KIRA KAY: After the military rejected the 1990 election, the country plunged into repression and isolation. American companies stopped doing business there. Western allies also cut off trade and investment.

Myanmar became uncomfortably dependent on China. Then the devestation of a massive cyclone in 2008 convinced reformers in the government they needed to open to the rest of the world.

By 2012, the generals who ruled the country surprised many by releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners, allowing limited demonstrations, and easing censorship.

U.S. AMBASSADOR DEREK MITCHELL: If you look at the trajectory, it is remarkable, because no one expected this country to change in the ways it has that quickly.

KIRA KAY: Derek Mitchell has had a front row seat to this transition. In 2012, he became the first U.S. Ambassador since the 1990 clampdown.

U.S. AMBASSADOR DEREK MITCHELL: You have civil society talking to parliament about legislation, conversations occurring. You have political parties like the N.L.D. legal and campaigning. You have labor unions forming. And altogether there’s much more free media than there was, three to four years ago.

KIRA KAY: Mitchell say U.S. Policy has shifted from condemnation to collaboration, with the dropping of most sanctions. President Obama has visited Myanmar twice in the past three years.

U.S AMBASSADOR DEREK MITCHELL: I do not believe we’ve moved too quickly at all, and I think we’ve made the right decision, and I think a lot of what has occurred has been with the encouragement and the leverage of United States diplomacy.

KIRA KAY: U.S. investment remains limited. But Myanmar’s Asian neighbors are investing much more, making overall foreign investment 25 times what it was five years ago.

ATMs are a new and welcome sight. The telecom sector is booming, as this once hermit nation goes from an absence of cell phones and the internet to an almost overnight infatuation with smart phones.

Young people are returning home to join the information revolution. These entrepreneurs at the IT hub Phandeeyar attended college in the U.S. and Singapore.

SU MON WIN, TECH ENTREPENEUR: Instead of returning back to the U.S. I just continued to stay here and actually applied for a job. There’s so much more here, and I wanted to be a part of it.

HEIN ZAW OO, TECH ENTREPENEUR: This country needs a lot more innovation, and there are a lot of gaps you have to fill. A lot of things missing that we don’t have here. I kind of feel responsible to do it.

KIRA KAY: The easing of government press censorship brought editor Aung Zaw and his reporters back to their homeland. He founded his news magazine while in exile.

AUNG ZAW, EDITOR, THE IRRAWDADDY: We’ve been seen as an enemy of the state. We were blacklisted here in this country. But things started changing in this country. Last three years, we’ve been back here, set up an office, here I’m sitting here with my colleagues.

KIRA KAY: Still, Aung Zaw keeps his headquarters in neighboring Thailand, skeptical the changes of recent years are permanent.

AUNG ZAW, EDITOR, THE IRRAWDADDY: I think there are some leadership who took a risk to open up without knowing the consequences. Once you open up, it’s difficult to close it down because of it is people’s desire. At the same time the former regime leaders, particularly the military, it is very naïve to assume they will give in very easily.

KIRA KAY: In Myanmar’s parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi walks the halls as a celebrity, with her own paparazzi in tow.

But the real power here is on display when buses disgourge dozens of military officers in uniform. 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for them, and, since the constitution says all changes need a 75-percent majority, these men in green hold an effective veto over anything they don’t like, including amending the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president.

Since being elected to parliament, she has courted the military in the hope of changing the constitution, but failed.

AUNG ZAW, EDITOR, THE IRRAWDADDY: I think Aung San Suu Kyi was the key who helped to open the door for them. Who asked the West to lift the sanctions, to lift the pressure. And what she got in return? Nothing!

KIRA KAY: One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s proteges in parliament is fellow party member Zayar Thaw.

ZAYAR THAW, CANDIDATE, NATIONAL LEAGUE FOR DEMOCRACY: We try our best, but it doesn’t reach our goal yet. Yes, we admit it.

KIRA KAY: The NewsHour met him before he was first elected in 2012. A long-shot candidate, he was part of the National League for Democracy sweep of the 43 seats contested that year. He hopes in November his party will build on that momentum to force greater change.

ZAYAR THAW, CANDIDATE, NATIONAL LEAGUE FOR DEMOCRACY: Our country is not in the democratic system, not yet. It’s more like a transition period. So this year election, people can show we want to stop military ruling the country. They can show it with the voting.

KIRA KAY: Besides the limits imposed by the constitution, there are other setbacks to democracy here. The country’s main university, once shuttered after students rose up against military rule, reopened.

But when students recently protested for more of a say over their own education, the government’s response was reminiscent of past brutality.

EI PONE, STUDENT: Only with a better education system can our country develop. As a student, I felt responsibility. That’s why I joined the protest.

KIRA KAY: 22-year-old Ei Pone and 21-year-old Kyaw Zin Thant were with a group of protesters confronted by police this spring.

KYAW ZIN THANT, STUDENT: They dragged us to the trucks to go to the prison. They started beating us while we were walking. They kicked us when we fell down.

KIRA KAY: Around 50 students remain jailed, charged with public unrest and bringing shame to their country.

AUNG NAY PAING, STUDENT: We are now supposed to be free to participate in political activities, but students got beaten violently, losing our human rights. The international community should keep a close eye on this government.

U.S AMBASSADOR DEREK MITCHELL: We’re not satisfied that there have continued to be arrests based on protests that should be legal whether they got permission or not. There’s no place in a democracy for that kind of activity.

KIRA KAY: Another worrying trend here is the rise of religious nationalism — for the past few years, a divisive and sometimes violent strain on society — and now a political force as well.

A handful of prominent monks are taking advantage of freer speech to spread anti-Muslim propaganda. They are finding a receptive audience in this 90-percent Buddhist nation.

Their fiery sermons inspired boycotts of muslim-owned businesses and fueled sectarian violence, like the 2013 attacks in the central city of Meiktila, were 43 Muslims and one Buddhist monk were killed and entire neighborhoods razed.

Now, the monks have created “Ma Ba Tha” – “the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.” Ma Ba Tha Spokesman U Parmaukkha says the nine-percent Muslim minority puts the country at risk.

U PARMAUKKHA, MA BA THA: Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan all were once Buddhist countries. Now they are all Islamic countries. I don’t want that to happen here.

KIRA KAY: Ma Ba Tha triumphed this summer when Myanmar’s parliament passed laws drafted by the monks limiting interfaith marriage and religious conversions. Now, some Ma Ba Tha are criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, because the NLD opposed the race and religion laws.

U PARMAUKKHA, MA BA THA: We have to encourage people to vote for candidates who will ensure our race, our religion, our country will not disappear.

U.S. AMBASSADOR DEREK MITCHELL: It’s dangerous and particularly as elections come, the kinds of division and the fear that is stirred up.

KIRA KAY: To ensure November’s voting is as fair and transparent as possible, election monitors are being trained around the country – sessions sometimes paid for by the U.S.

93 parties are running, fielding 6000 candidates. The current majority party, made up of former military members, is campaigning hard, taking nothing for granted.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party needs to win two-thirds of the contested parliament seats to achieve a governing majority.

How the military accepts the election results – or does not– will be a major test of whether Myanmar’s transition to democracy is for real.