GWEN IFILL: In 2007, the world got a horrific peek inside the closed world of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, as the military regime brutally crushed the Saffron Revolution, led by monks and students demanding political freedom.In recent years, however, the government has signaled a new openness, promising democratic reforms, and proposing peace treaties with numerous ethnic groups in the country that have been at war with the government, in some cases since the end of World War II.
Jeffrey Brown recently traveled to Myanmar for a look.
Here’s the first of his reports.
JEFFREY BROWN: It is a land long shrouded in mystery, kept isolated from the world for more than 50 years.
Now, as Myanmar begins to open up, its wonders and beauties become clearer, but so do its complexities and huge difficulties. One place to see it all is here in Karen State in the southeastern part of the country, where signs of the past are a reminder of the tenuous political situation.
Not long ago, this was an area of violence, home to what was called the world’s longest-running civil war, as ethnic Karen people battled the central government for independence. But there’s a cease-fire in place now, offering the potential for peace and a possible model for this long-closed-off country.
For these young girls, their faces adorned with the traditional tree bark cream that women here use as sunblock, that means the possibility of coming to Pa-An, Karen’s capital city, to attend a government-accredited school.
These are the children of rebels who long battled that same government. And these girls have spent their entire lives in an internationally sponsored refugee camp on the nearby border with Thailand.
There was much fighting in the area where you live. Do you remember fighting? Did you see fighting?
GIRL (through interpreter): I know they have signed a cease-fire.
JEFFREY BROWN: Does that make you happy?
GIRL (through interpreter): If people aren’t fighting and dying, that is much better.
JEFFREY BROWN: The government is now seeking a permanent peace treaty here in Karen and throughout the country. It won’t be easy. Ethnic Burmans living in the central heartland make up the great majority of the country’s population.
But all around are lands occupied by numerous other ethnic groups, more than 100 by some counts. Many have been in armed conflict with the government.
Here in Karen, at least, the rebels say they’re ready to end that.
MANN THEIN, Karen National Union (through interpreter): This fighting that has gone on until now has not benefited the people at all. Instead, the people of Karen have suffered. Their villages were destroyed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mann Thein is a deputy with the Karen National Union, the political wing of the rebel group. A former fighter himself, he smiles as he tells us of his days chasing his enemy, the military government.
MANN THEIN (through interpreter): It wasn’t a game of chase like children play. It was one that involved guns and shooting.
JEFFREY BROWN: But now Mann Thein sits across the negotiating table from the very general he once fought.
Do you trust the Myanmar government and the Myanmar military?
MANN THEIN (through interpreter): In order for there to be trust, the trust must be built. Just as we have to make them trust us, they have to do things to show that we can trust them.
JEFFREY BROWN: A continuing area of violence, a religious clash between Buddhists and Muslims living in the western state of Rakhine, has recently drawn international attention in the last several years.
In January, the U.N. confirmed a riot that left 48 Rohingya Muslims dead. The government continues to deny the event occurred.
Another very real issue here: Who gains from moves toward peace? While most people in Karen are very poor, the area is rich in natural resources. And there are widespread reports of land grabs by government cronies.
This woman, who raises pigs and sells soap outside Pa-An, with aid from a micro-financing cooperative, was sure of one thing:
WOMAN (through interpreter): Peace only benefits those people with money, not poor people like me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why not?
WOMAN (through interpreter): From my perspective, peace means people with money just do business with each other, but it doesn’t affect me.
JEFFREY BROWN: It is, though, affecting many. In Yangon, the country’s largest city, there are signs of bustle and building, as foreign investors, sensing a new beginning for the country and new opportunities for themselves, pour in money.
President U Thein Sein, himself a former general, has promised a — quote — “disciplined democracy.” Under his tenure many, though not all, political prisoners have been released and restrictions on the media have been eased. The moves were enough to cause the U.S. to lift most sanctions and brought a visit by President Obama last year, the first ever by an American president.
MIN ZAW OO, Myanmar Peace Center: Considering the very rigid and military rule in the last 25 years, the extent of reform and what has been achieved in the last two years is quite remarkable.
JEFFREY BROWN: You, yourself, you for a number of years.
Min Zaw Oo is a director at the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon, a government-appointed committee negotiating a national peace treaty. But he’s also a former fighter against the government who left the country for many years and only returned 15 months ago, believing his former opponents are engaged in real change.
MIN ZAW OO: What the current government is doing is opening up this process, so people can come and join the political opening and gradually steer the transition to broader participation and broader reform. This is the only opportunity in the last 50 years.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is it?
MIN ZAW OO: This is it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Will that road be taken by everyone? Will this one be taken by anyone?
One of the stranger sights in this country, or perhaps anywhere, is this nearly empty 20-lane highway in Naypyidaw, the country’s new capital, built in the hinterlands in 2005 by the military government. The highway leads to the new parliament building, where another sign of Myanmar’s change is on display, the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, held under house arrest for 15 years, is now a member of parliament. And her party, the National League for Democracy, has a chance to win a majority of seats in next year’s election.
But huge barriers remain. The constitution mandates that 25 percent of seats be held for the military and bars Aung San Suu Kyi herself from being president because she has family members, two sons, who hold foreign citizenship. Her party wants the constitution amended.
So this is where you live when parliament is in session?
ZAW MYINT MAUNG, Parliament Member: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Zaw Myint Maung, who spent 18 years as a political prisoner, is today an NLD parliamentary member, now sitting across the aisle from the former interior minister who jailed thousands of dissidents like him.
ZAW MYINT MAUNG: What they did to us, we can forgive them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
ZAW MYINT MAUNG: But what they did to the country, this is important.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Well, what about the future? Are you hopeful about the future?
ZAW MYINT MAUNG: I cannot say exactly about the future. But we will try our best. The future is progressing. But if they do not amend the 2008 constitution, some unrest or some uprising…
JEFFREY BROWN: Really?
ZAW MYINT MAUNG: Oh, I think so.
JEFFREY BROWN: That’s possible again?
ZAW MYINT MAUNG: It’s possible — possible again.
MAN: So, if we now apply these relatively simple types of the changes and positions…
JEFFREY BROWN: What will happen next? How does a country transition from closed to open, from dictatorship to democracy?
These young students at the Yangon School of Political Science debated those questions recently. It was the first time in their lives, they told us afterwards, they could study politics freely.
Has your life changed, do you think? Is it better now?
TIN AUNG KO: Since — I’m a youth, so I can have more employment opportunities right now, because so many investments are coming.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it exciting, that — an exciting time?
DIM SIAN NEM: Yes. It is exciting. And at the same time, it’s also nervous. I think it has a lot of challenges now. I think it’s both exciting and it’s also — I’m also a bit nervous.
JEFFREY BROWN: A country in a state of de-isolation, poor, ethnically divided, with a very troubled past, and a potentially booming future — exciting, but nervous.
GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, Jeff looks at what this new political openness means for Myanmar’s cultural heritage.
And on our Art Beat page, you can read Jeff’s travel journal, which is part of his series Culture at Risk.