Credit: Illustration by Antler

Editor's note: "Burma Rebooted" is a three-part series that looks at the startling reversal of Burma's repression and isolation. Though known for the world's longest running civil war and thousands of political prisoners, Burma is now also a place where pop singers can show a little skin, new cars will soon be seen around town and pushing back against China is suddenly a possibility.

RANGOON, Burma — Want a snappy account of mankind’s worst behavior?

Punch “Burma” into Google and brace for it: child soldiers, political prisoners, state-sanctioned rape and the world’s longest-running civil war, all in one 54-million population country squished between China and India.

Burma’s military-led ruling class has cultivated a rotten brand, one consistently defined as “brutal” and “Orwellian” in headlines. Condoleezza Rice, the previous US Secretary of State, preferred “outpost of tyranny.”

Burma’s rulers have been so bad for so long that anyone expressing faith in their regime risks looking naive at best or, at worst, like an apologizer for war criminals.

But inside Burma, official breakthroughs are chipping away at the old narrative.

One year has passed since an election transformed Burma (officially called Myanmar) from a military dictatorship into a civilian government. Had it been a truly free and fair election, the 2010 polls would have been Burma’s most celebrated event in decades.

More from Burma Rebooted: Part 2 — Reformist government dares to push back against China

Instead, the voting was rigged, and the victorious party was stacked with ex-officers and their cronies. Western heads of state declared it a sham. The United States, the European Union and other Western nations have held on to sanctions forbidding all business ties to the pariah state.

But those subject to some of the government’s heaviest shackles — journalists, pro-democracy agitators, even ex-political prisoners — now describe surprising moves to reverse decades of surveillance and repression.

“Outside, people can’t see the whole situation here. They have so many suspicions of the government,” said Tin Oo. At 84, he is the right-hand man of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and vice-chairman of her National League for Democracy party.

More from Burma Rebooted: Part 3 — Young, gifted and Burmese

“We also have suspicions,” said Tin Oo. He is right to have them. Eight years ago, he and Suu Kyi survived an attack led by army-backed thugs.

The attackers went unpunished. Suu Kyi and Tin Oo were confined to prison and, later, their homes. They were finally set free last year.

“Now, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is quite pleased to work with the elected president,” Tin Oo said.

Suu Kyi, 66, is the child of Burma’s independence hero, Aung San, credited with securing autonomy from the British in 1948. Charisma-wise, she is tantamount to George Washington’s daughter.

After decades devoted to dulling her aura — most notably voiding her 1990 landslide election to the prime minister’s seat — senior officials are finally holding regular meetings with Suu Kyi.

There is also talk of legalizing her party, which is currently banned, and allowing Suu Kyi to run for parliament in a by-election at year’s end. This would be her first race since the nullified election 21 years ago that derailed Burma’s democratic hopes.

Change is even visible on Burma’s streets, where Suu Kyi’s face grins down from posters sold on street corners. Until recently, flaunting her image in public would invite martyrdom.

“Three months ago, we couldn’t imagine this,” Tin Oo said. “It’s quite strange and different.”

Burma's time warp

The military men propping up Burma’s pseudo-democracy have ordered protesters shot in the streets. They’ve robbed their people of basic freedoms and waged war on jungle-dwelling ethnic groups accounting for more than half of the population.

The army’s struggle with the Karen, a majority-Christian armed ethnic group in Burma’s east, is considered the planet’s longest ongoing civil war.

More: Inside Burma, last call for the resistance

Many of Burma’s seven main ethnicities, defended by separatist militias, have endured troops raping their women, enslaving their men as porters and forcing their children to become soldiers. Many of their villages weren’t even allowed to vote.

Still, the West’s ban on business with any Burmese company has locked the country into a time warp, one that strains the average Burmese far more than connected generals and their comrades.

In the largest city, Rangoon (officially called Yangon) the dysfunction is staggering.

Children dusted head-to-toe in black soot wander downtown like Dickensian chimney sweeps. Dark mold nibbles on colonial structures left behind by the British. The currency is so frayed that shopkeepers offer change in tissues and cigarettes.

But any traveler keen to witness Burma’s lost-in-time landscape should book tickets soon. The country’s de-isolation is underway. And there are signs that many absurd restrictions on life in one of Asia’s poorest nations could soon go away.

More: Aung San Suu Kyi, powerful icon or powerless leader?

“A lot has changed. Not too long ago, it was damn scary,” said a British woman I’ll call Margie.

Margie has lived in Burma, off and on, for two decades. She now holds a senior position with a well-known international charity. Her ties to the pro-democracy movement, paired with her status as a foreigner, has long drawn the gaze of Burma’s surveillance network.

“You learn to whisper and use coded language. No names,” she said. “We know every restaurant in town with a back door. You need your escape routes lined up. Even on the phone, they’ve got full control and can listen at will.”

But in recent months, Margie said, much of the surveillance appears to have fizzled away. Previously forbidden subjects are discussed openly in tea shops. “Everyone’s still a little scared,” she said. “But I’m daring to hope. The external narrative says we must have 100 percent human rights overnight. In what country do you have that?”

A 27-year-old Burmese news addict and diehard Suu Kyi supporter, nicknamed Jimmy, was equally spun by recent changes.

Clad in a black T-shirt and a forest green “longyi,” the Burmese sarong, Jimmy was excited by the blunt talk now swirling around Rangoon’s tea shops. His news fix relies both on the Democratic Voice of Burma’s website and old-fashioned gossip.

“This is not a democracy. But it’s more free now,” he said. “Look at your country, America. Look at how long you had your black-white problems.”

Did he vote last year? “No,” Jimmy said. “Maybe I should have.”

Economic openings

Burma’s government doesn’t just stifle liberty. It imposes bizarre restraints on commerce. But some of these economic restrictions are also melting away.

First, look at how destitute Burma has become. Here’s a whirlwind tour through the poverty stats:

  • Average monthly salary: $27, according to the United Nations.
  • Percentage of population without electricity: 70 percent, according to the US State Department.
  • Percentage of Burmese without clean drinking water: 40-60 percent, according to the European Commission and other agencies.
  • And if that wasn’t bad enough, a 1988 Toyota Corolla costs more than $28,000.

But it's looking up.

Consider Burma’s Cuba-esque restrictions on vehicles. Regardless of high demand, the government only allows the import of a few thousand cars per year.

The supply is so meager that Reagan-era junkers sell for more than $30,000. Traffic in Rangoon is like a procession of zombies on wheels, all resurrected from an auto graveyard.

More: Burma, anatomy of a sham election

Unlike Havana, blessed with pre-revolution Chevys, the Burmese are more likely to squeeze life out of a Japanese four-door with floorboard gashes that offer passengers a view of the street underfoot.

But this too is set to change: a cash-for-clunkers scheme will soon benefit drivers of extremely old cars (40 years or older) willing to let the government melt down their vehicle. In return, they’ll be allowed to import one used car worth $3,500 or less.

Future phases will extend the deal to progressively younger cars. Eventually, Burma’s car market could start to resemble reality.

Cell phones are another anomaly. Until recently, SIM cards, the microchips that provide phones with a distinct number, cost $1,500. (Phone sold separately.) The regime-set rate meant only the extremely wealthy could afford mobile phones.

That was the point. With phones limited to the highest income bracket, spies had a smaller network to keep tabs on.

But as of this year, the SIM card price is $625. And according to the Myanmar Times newspaper, prices are set to fall even further.

But perhaps Burma’s currency, the kyat, is the mess crying loudest for a fix.

The government contends that six of their kyat are worth $1. No other institution agrees. The real rate, set on the black market, is roughly 13,000 percent higher.

There are no ATMs in Rangoon. Visitors are advised to bring US$100 bills for a black-market exchange. The Benjamins must be pristine: crisp, unblemished and issued after 2006, ideally bearing serial codes beginning with the letter H.

Rangoon’s fastidious dollar swappers conduct business in back alleys and beneath staircases. They examine visitors' $100 bills as a jeweler would diamonds. An infinitesimal smudge, the mere suggestion of a crease, and the bill is declared unworthy — or at least worth substantially less.

But there is hope yet for a cash-swap method less akin to scoring pot.

Burma’s government has already invited teams from the International Monetary Fund to untangle its its currency chaos. The next visit is set for early 2012. In the meantime, according to China’s Xinhua outlet, six private banks will be permitted to open exchange windows offering a legit rate.

But Burma’s government is obliged to move quickly. According to the IMF, Burma’s tangle of official and unofficial exchanges can wreak efficiency losses worth 14-17 percent of annual GDP.

Censorship abates

Along with these economic shifts, the media is also breathing easier.  

Over coffee at a cafe inside one of Rangoon's few high-rise buildings, a Burmese reporter (I’ll refer to him as Zaw) agreed to explain the constantly evolving restrictions.

You still can’t write about Than Shwe, the untouchable dictator general who was Burma’s head of state from 1992 until last year’s election. You cannot allude to a power struggle between hardliners and the ascendant reformers led by the general-turned-president Thein Sein.

“However, you can praise the president and say his reforms are an improvement on the past military government,” Zaw said. “It’s amazing!”

Earlier this year, journals devoted to lighter fare — sports, health and fortune-telling — were allowed to publish without first submitting articles to government censors. In October, the deputy head of Burma’s “Press Scrutiny” department, Tint Swe, told Radio Free Asia that “press censorship should be abolished in the near future.” His proposal: eliminating the filter for all publications.

Zaw is the play-it-safe type. His 10-plus years have taught him which questions risk detention and which ones allow him to return home for dinner with his wife. Even if censors stopped pre-filtering his copy, they could still punish him post-publication if he crossed the line.

Still, Zaw is often shocked by the newfound courage of young Burmese reporters. “These little guys and gals,” he said, “they keep asking harder and harder questions.”

The moment that really wowed Zaw took place in September. Hundreds of protesters dared to commemorate a 2007 monk-led “Saffron Revolution” uprising that was violently crushed by the army.

Zaw anticipated cracked heads. “But you know what happened? They didn’t throw everyone in the back of a truck. They negotiated with them.”

"Cannot retreat now"

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is headquartered in a two-story wooden home that smells like an antique shop. It is a Suu Kyi shrine: her photo hangs from every corner except for wall space allotted to images of her father or Che Guevara.

On one October afternoon, the headquarters greeted recently freed political prisoners. About 200 had just been released in amnesty with more than 6,000 common criminals. Many had shuffled out of Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison, walking barefoot on the sun-baked dirt, their belongings balanced in bundles on their heads. Gatherers outside received them with delighted cheers.

One week later, Suu Kyi's party was treating the ex-prisoners to a free curry plate and envelopes filled with about $12.50 worth of kyat. (Or, if you follow the government rate, $1,666.)

Would Suu Kyi make an appearance? Not today, visitors were told. She's off meditating.

“We want her health to be perfect. She wakes up every day, has a prayer service, and gets to work,” Tin Oo said. “She has conversations on the ... Sky? Skylight?” — Skype? — “Yes! Skype.”

Releasing political prisoners is among the loudest demand from US officials, including President Barack Obama. Since the election, the No. 1 prisoner, Suu Kyi, and about 315 others have been set loose.

According to most estimates, there are roughly 1,600-plus political prisoners remaining in prison. To many human-rights watchdog groups, this slow leak of prisoners is not up to speed.

“Does Amnesty International really expect, as per the proverbial and rhetorical words, that this should literally happen overnight? Yes, we do,” wrote Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki in response to the latest release. “By their definition, prisoners of conscience should never have been detained in the first place.”

Along Burma’s other frontlines of abuse, the jungles where outgunned ethnic militias spar with Burma’s army, the situation appears to have worsened since the election. As Amnesty and other groups report, “widespread and systematic” crimes such as forced labor have continued unabated.

Tin Oo, a former army general, has seen the military’s inner workings and also felt its wrath. Since a falling out with the military in the 1970s, he has floated between freedom and prison. He went on to help Suu Kyi found her party in 1988.

While Burma seems on the cusp of great change, there have been similar times of openness in its history that have failed to turn into lasting reform. Burma experienced a period of relative respite from repressive policies in the summer of 1998, which directly preceded its deadliest crackdown in recent history.

Like most, Tin Oo doesn’t think the ruling party has suddenly discovered ethics. “They probably just want to save their skin,” he said. But he is convinced that, like it or not, cooperating with the men who’ve oppressed Burma is the key to helping it rise.

“The government understands that people desire peace at any cost,” Tin Oo said. “They cannot retreat now.”

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