Change is coming fast in the country long known as Burma and now, officially as Myanmar. But it's not fast enough for many ordinary Burmese. They welcome the relaxed political environment, the ability to talk freely about their pro-democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi. Now they want a freer and fairer economy — without the hassle of working around continuing US and European sanctions.
In an open air teashop, on a dusty corner in Yangon, I sat down with 27-year-old Burmese-American Richard Soe. He left his home in Austin, Texas, to come to Myanmar.
"I wanted to make money," Soe said. "I didn't want to live day to day, like I did living in America. I felt if I came here, I could be somebody."
In Texas, he was often mistaken for Mexican. Few people knew what Burma was. Now that he's here, he's learned Burmese, and has started going by his Burmese name, Thant Zin Soe. He said he feels more at home here than he did in the United States.
"I like it here. Even though it's not a free country, you can do everything freely. For instance, you can walk down the street, day and night, here and you won't get harassed. I've seen some people drunk here. They can't walk, and strangers come and ask them where they live, and take them home," Soe said. He added that back home in the US, if you're drunk like that, you might get robbed or arrested.
Myanmar was even less a free country when Soe arrived here in October 2007. It was just weeks after troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators.
"People don't talk about it here. People are afraid to talk about it here." Even now.
It's still not free here, Soe said. "You can't say whatever you want. You can't do whatever you want."
But that's changing. Burmese say openly now what they might not have whispered a year. Thirty-two-year-old Ko Nay Min, who joins us at our low wooden table in the teashop, was born and raised in Burma, and he shows no fear in telling me he was a flag-waving protester in 2007.
Ko describes the moment when troops opened fire, when he saw other protesters around him drop, and he took a bullet in the back. He pulls back his shirt to show me the scar. He said they all ran when they heard the gunshots.
Back then, he said, he fled to Thailand for three months, to avoid arrest. Now, he thinks things are going as they should have long ago — and he can focus on business. He and Richard Soe have been trying to start a company importing South Korean cars and buses to feed Myanmar's growing appetite for vehicles.
"Starting a business here — especially here — is not easy, because we have to have the connections," Richard Soe said. "When I started, I didn't know him, and I didn't speak Burmese. It's not easy, you know? But then I met him, and he's got a lot of connections here."
Those connections have helped the two young business partners figure out how to work around US and European sanctions, which make it hard to get lines of credit or do international banking.
It's a complicated business. Soe said the cars and buses go from Korea to Singapore and then on to Myanmar. Soe, Ko and a Korean colleague are responsible for getting the vehicles from South Korea to Singapore; then a Singapore-based company run by Burmese officials picks it up from there, importing the vehicles into Myanmar.
Aside from the irony of doing business with officials from the same government that put a bullet in your back, the guys have found that the Burmese officials in Singapore haven't been all that reliable as business partners.
Ko said the Burmese officials are always changing their minds, "they don't keep their word."
They've sold 10 buses to government departments so far, with 10 more on the way. Once the US lifts sanctions, allowing the use of credit cards, international banking and telecommunications in Burma, Soe and Ko hope to cut out the Singapore connection, and have their own vehicle import business in Myanmar.
They may have to wait a while, though. US relations with Myanmar are improving since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit in December, but lifting sanctions isn't like flipping a switch, said Burmese historian Thant Myint U.
"Washington now says it will raise relations, or diplomatic relations, to ambassador level," he said. "It's rolled back some small sanctions, but there is still a whole set of laws on the books that restrict economic relations between Myanmar and the US that essentially means it restricts relations between Myanmar and global markets in general. This is going to take a long time to undo. It's going to require new legislation. It's going to require action from Congress."
Meanwhile, Myanmar's reforms have raised expectations of more foreign investment coming in, which has in some cases tripled or quadrupled rents, and driven up inflation. Ko Nay Min said political reform and new foreign investment is all well and good, but the government should be doing more about the fact that a lot of people are finding it hard to make ends meet.
A lot of people are living on the street and begging and having no food, he said. "The government is just ignoring it and pretending it's not happening."
Ko Nay Min hopes the current political reforms bring not just more democracy, but a better deal for ordinary Burmese. For one thing, the government could drop the requirement to pay $10,000 for a permit that gives you the right to buy a car. That would give him and Soe more potential customers for their imports. It would also make him feel the risks he and others took protesting on the streets four years ago helped — in some small way — steer his country in the right direction.