Tentative Steps: Navigating Burma's Fragile Democracy

PHOTO: Vistors at Myanmar Convention Center

Burma is slowly transitioning from military dictatorship to democracy, but the old elite still pulls the strings. As the country moves toward freedom, they increasingly find themselves confronted with victims of the old regime.

When Aung San Suu Kyi met the new president of Burma for the first time after her release, her smile, the smile of an icon, had disappeared. She looked stern and unrelenting as she stood next to President Thein Sein. She kept him at arm's length. Each centimeter of distance seemed precious. Nevertheless, she stood before the camera with a man who had built his career under the old regime. That was in August 2011.

In June of this year, Aung San Suu Kyi said that she wanted to become her country's president. She made the announcement in front of delegates to an economic forum in the Burmese capital Naypyidaw; even a cabinet minister was listening. She sounded almost flirtatious when she said it, as if she had learned to play the game.

Every gesture and every word coming from Aung San Suu Kyi in the last two years has been a test. How close is she to the military leaders now? Is she deferring to them? And exactly who is using whom? Are the country's military leaders trying to burnish their image with a Nobel peace prize winner, or is the Nobel laureate guiding the establishment toward change?

While in captivity, Aung San Suu Kyi's determination made her a role model. But now that she is free, she has to combine morality and pragmatism, and, once again, the country is paying attention to her. Many in Burma have a story of enmity to tell, and if even the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi is negotiating with the old generals, shouldn't others feel that it's alright to do the same?

'We Are Trying to Adjust'

The former enemies cannot escape one another. They can only decide whether they will have the strength to reconcile or the will to come to an agreement. But how can this succeed in a country whose population looks back on half a century of military dictatorship? Some don't want to think about their culpability. Others can't forget their fear -- such as Toe Zaw Latt, a journalist and former dissident.

There is no sign on his office door. Inside, the green curtains are drawn shut and a tarp covers half the balcony. "Old habits," says Toe Zaw Latt with a laugh. He was with the rebels in the jungle in the late 1980s, he worked in Thailand for the opposition broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and he is familiar with resistance and secrecy. He has spent his life studying his enemy.

"If you become too high profile, they feel attacked," he says. He doesn't say exactly to whom he is referring. Nor does he say whom he and the others from the DVB are actually hiding from. They are no longer part of an exile station based in Norway that secretly sends its reporters into Burma. Now, DVB has an office in Rangoon. They are no longer fighting a dictatorship of generals. Now they struggle with power outages instead. There is a generator on the balcony outside their office. "We are trying to adjust, both externally and in terms of our emotions," says Toe Zaw Latt.

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