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Myanmar elections aside, few see change

Activist’s release is called a sham

Buddhist monks walked along the streets in Yangon, Myanmar. The country recently held its first election in 20 years, but it was widely seen as a ploy by the government. Buddhist monks walked along the streets in Yangon, Myanmar. The country recently held its first election in 20 years, but it was widely seen as a ploy by the government. (Associated Press)
Associated Press / November 21, 2010

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YANGON, Myanmar — The shopkeeper, a thin, jittery man who has spent nearly half his life in prison, wishes change were coming to Myanmar.

But the recent elections were a sham, he says, and the promises of democratic reform are empty words. He celebrated the release of prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, but dismissed the idea it heralds a change in this secretive military-ruled nation.

“This is not a new era,’’ said Bo Bo Oo, 46, in sentiments echoed around the country, which is also known as Burma. “The generals will not change.’’

Globalization reached the long-isolated nation while Bo Bo Oo was in prison, serving 20 years for helping organize prodemocracy protests in 1988. Amid Myanmar’s withering poverty, you can now buy knockoff iPhones at the Mobile World shop in Mandalay and browse for lingerie at the Sexy Girl store in Yangon. You can live in a high-rise condo and watch CNN on satellite TV.

But belief in political change is much harder to find. This is a country battered by its own government, its pessimism shaped by decades of experience. In conversations with dozens of people, little was heard but anguish.

“The government has the power, and it does not want to give it up,’’ an elderly Buddhist monk said.

He remembers the days of British colonialism, and the Japanese occupation during World War II. He can talk about fleeing into the forests when Allied bombs began falling around the town, and the first military coup, in 1958. In 2007, he watched as monks were arrested and even killed during antigovernment protests dominated by the Buddhist clergy.

He sees modern Myanmar as the darkest time.

Like most people in Myanmar, he spoke on condition he not be identified, fearing retribution from the ruling junta’s agents and the Tatmadaw, as the army is called.

A few analysts do see signs of change. At the very least, they say, the elections will create new clusters of power in Naypyidaw, the capital city.

In Mandalay, a young businessman also sees a sliver of possibility in the elections.

“I don’t believe in these generals. I cannot see them giving up any power,’’ he said. “But maybe some new people [in the government] will change something. I hope so.’’

Bo Bo Oo, though, sees no hope. “All this is just about publicity,’’ he said of the Nov. 7 elections and Suu Kyi’s release.

Like many, he notes that Suu Kyi’s release came just a week after the first elections in 20 years, giving the junta a desperately needed publicity boost. While the military claims the vote will usher in a democratic government, much of the international community decried it as political burlesque that will entrench the generals behind proxy politicians.

“They want the world to think that this is becoming a democracy. But the Burmese people know the truth,’’ he said.

Myanmar holds nearly 2,200 political prisoners. Some of the country’s minority ethnic groups, who have faced brutal repression, back militias that have fought the generals for decades.

The government’s political agenda is seldom clear. Little is known about Than Shwe, the general who heads the junta, beyond rumors and gossip. International officials can go years without meeting him, and new ambassadors, who get a few minutes with him when they present their credentials, are grilled.

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