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Cheaper Cell Phones, Fewer Restrictions Ease Daily Life in Myanmar

Residents of Mandalay, Myanmar, gather outside a religious building on Tuesday to listen to monks, who are protesting for the release of all political prisoners. Photo by AFPSTR/AFP/Getty Images.

Myanmar’s repressive regime is showing signs of relaxing restrictions not only in the political and diplomatic realm but in the day-to-day lives of its people, according to Patrick Winn, who recently traveled to Myanmar to do a series of reports for GlobalPost.

Those changes became apparent early in his trip, Winn said, when he noticed street venders openly selling newspapers and magazines bearing the portrait of opposition leader and democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. “That contradicted everything I was told before I went. To sell and flaunt her image would be to invite at least surveillance if not some sort of punishment or possibly imprisonment.”

That particular change came about quickly — residents told him the sale of her portrait had only started a few weeks earlier.

Another sign of potential change comes from Myanmar’s wish to chair the 2014 ASEAN summit, a meeting of 10 countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. On Wednesday, foreign ministers of the member countries endorsed Myanmar’s chairmanship and said they would make it official Thursday at this year’s summit in Bali, Indonesia.

Hosting the summit means Myanmar will have to undertake even more reforms and answer to demands to release its political prisoners. Since last year’s election, Suu Kyi and about 315 other political prisoners have been freed, Winn reported.

A Myanmar security official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that some political prisoners were being moved to jails closer to their families, though there wasn’t word of any further releases.

“If they are allowed to [host] in 2014, which is really quite shocking, then they will really have to clean up their act,” said Winn. But the country’s leaders wouldn’t even have pursued the chairmanship without knowing they’d have to be more lenient on journalists, can’t have any embarrassing crackdowns in the country, and must grant people access, he said.

Myanmar's newly-released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters as she arrives at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon on Nov. 15, 2010.
Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters at the National League for Democracy headquarters in Yangon on Nov. 15, 2010. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

The easing of some political restrictions and stepped-up diplomatic efforts seem to be bringing tangible improvements to people’s daily lives. In Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest countries where the average monthly salary is $27, cars are surprisingly expensive — for example, a 1988 Toyota Corolla can cost more than $28,000 — because of the restrictions on automobile imports, said Winn.

But in a program similar to the United States’ cash-for-clunkers, drivers of old cars can donate them to the government for materials in exchange for getting another newer used car worth $3,500 or less, he said.

Also, SIM microchip cards used in cell phones are notoriously expensive — sold at a regime-specified rate of $1,500. But the cost of the cards fell to $625 this year and might drop even further, he added.

Though some people expressed skepticism that the new relaxing of rules would remain permanent, many voiced excitement about the changing times, said Winn.

“The Western media likes to focus on the political reforms, which are pretty astonishing,” he said. “But the reforms that will change daily life in the country might be even more profound.”

Read more of Winn’s stories on Myanmar’s pushback against neighboring China, its main investor, and on Myanmar’s hip-hop scene.

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