Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:30 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 13:30 | SYDNEY

Postcard from Burma

19 August 2010 09:19

Thom Woodroofe, 21, was the 2009 Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think Tank.

Last Friday I landed in Burma as the ruling military junta announced a national election would be held on 7 November.

The following weekend, I met a senior military enlisted soldier who told me that the government only knew how to do one thing: 'kill'. Once I had established a sense of trust, he couldn't wait to tell me that 'everybody liked' pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with only 'twenty percent' liking the government – those who profit from their repressive and abusive rule. He said the people were 'sad' and that the elections wouldn't change anything – as he put it, 'the military just change their clothes and run for government'.

The heartbreaking end to our afternoon together came when he asked me to help him seek refuge overseas. He produced a notebook bearing the names of dozens of Western visitors he had met and whom I imagine he had shared the same story with.

This soldier's story is not unique among the almost 500,000 people in the Tatmadaw, the twelfth largest military in the world. The only time I encountered the strict and harsh image of the military elite and those following their orders was when I was caught photographing inside the entrance to the Bureau of Special Investigation, right around the corner from the Australian Embassy. I quickly removed my camera's memory chip before they ordered me to delete the photos. 

The first thing you notice when you arrive in the largest city, Yangon, is just how modern the airport is, thanks to an upgrade three years ago. It's cozy, but comparable to those in developed and democratic countries. 

The airport is just one example of a wider government effort to open up its borders and project a sense of order. In May this year it implemented a Visa On Arrival (VOA) system, which after a quick cross-check with a 'black list', easily grants you access. Despite some travel warnings, gone are the days when your laptop could be confiscated and your luggage would be thoroughly searched, if you even got in at all.

The small number of Western hotels dotted throughout the city are among the best I have encountered. They are clearly driven by a new push towards comforting the business traveler by providing easy internet access, cable news and so forth. Watching CNN in my room that evening, a headline that referred to the government as a 'military junta' even popped up, unfiltered. However, online, YouTube and the ABC were blocked absolutely, with Twitter and Gmail restricted to some degree.

The domestic media could not be any more different.

The day after my arrival, the front page of The New Light of Myanmar proudly announced the 'democratic' elections, but without any analysis of candidates or issues. Dotted throughout were banners proclaiming the newspaper's four political, economic and social objectives as well as what they termed the 'People's Desire'. The back page each day referred to the internationally broadcast Radio of America and BBC as 'sowing hatred among the people'. The groups Democracy for Burma (DVB) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) were also cast daily as 'generating public outrage'.

The November elections are unlikely to change much.

The last national poll was held to endorse a military-drafted constitution during the chaos that followed Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The cyclone left 200,000 people dead and crippled the economy. Yet apparently, a staggering 99 percent of the 22 million voters turned out, with over 92 percent endorsing a document that mandated a quarter of seats be reserved for the military regime in any future elections.

The circuit breaker to democracy remains Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy won over 60 percent of the vote and 80 percent of the seats in the 1990 elections before they were annulled by the military leadership. She won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and the support of the global community. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described her arrest last year as 'a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime's planned elections next year', and penned his last letter in office to her.

As evidenced by the bustle outside the passport office in Yangon on a Saturday afternoon, the regime has not closed its borders to citizens wanting to travel. The problem is that a generation of talent which could help bring about democracy is fleeing the place. This makes it harder for democracy to come from within, placing heightened importance on the need for the international community to act cohesively and constructively in helping bring about democracy.

But governments around the world remain divided on just how to deal with the military junta. Countries such as Canada, the UK, US and France press for further sanctions, while neighbors like China and India argue that sanctions won't help. With a government in place that already spends the least on health-care worldwide, many also argue that further sanctions are just going to hurt those they are ultimately designed to help.

The country remains the untouched gem of Southeast Asia. Walking through the streets of Yangon you cannot help but notice three things. First, that for every story about the military regime there is a peaceful beauty reflected in the hordes of monks walking the streets. Second, almost every street corner is blessed with a book shop, a hallmark of the traditionally high literacy rate – around 90 percent. And third, you hardly see a Westerner, highlighting that too much of our knowledge continues to be gained from secondary sources rather than real experiences.