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Long-Awaited Progress in Myanmar

It’s great to see the government of Myanmar lifting restrictions on the press. Having just spent a week traveling around this distant country, I was struck, as many visitors have been, by the friendliness and hospitality of its inhabitants, by the haunting beauty of its jungle-and-mountain landscape, by the impressive number of spellbinding Buddhas, pagodas, and temples scattered everywhere–and of course by the terrible poverty of what is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has some first-rate hotels, but not much infrastructure beyond that–in Yangon, the capital, ordinary people travel in overpacked pickup trucks that double as buses. Throughout the country most people lack electricity, running water and other essentials. Per capita income is just $1,300 a year, an incomprehensibly low sum by American standards. Myanmar does not have the worst poverty I have ever seen because so much of the country is rural; urban shantytowns in Africa or Latin America appear, at least from this outsider’s perspective, to be far worse living places because they lack the social and familial support structure that exists in Myanmar’s villages. But Myanmar is bad enough–the poorest country in Southeast Asia. And that is the case despite its rich natural resources and its great potential for tourism.

The blame for that state of affairs lies squarely with the military junta that has mismanaged the country for decades, lining their own pockets while impoverishing the population. That parlous state of affairs has changed in the past couple of years under the leadership of former general Thein Sein, who has emerged as a Burmese Gorbachev, dismantling from within the system that put him into power. His most important symbolic move has been to free the brave dissident leader (and Nobel laureate ) Aung San Suu Kyi, known to Burmese simply as “The Lady,” from house arrest. Her party has been allowed to contest parliamentary elections, winning 43 of 45 open seats in April. (I visited their Yangon headquarters in a modest storefront stuffed with literature being distributed by volunteers and T-shirts and umbrellas depicting their hero being sold to passers-by.) Other political prisoners have also been sprung from prison although some remain behind bars.

It is not yet clear what is next for Myanmar; the political opening remains fragile and incomplete. But if the trajectory of the past couple of years continues, it will become a liberal democracy. Greater prosperity is sure to follow once all international sanctions are lifted. The repeal of censorship on the press is another small but important step down that road.

There is not a better feel-good story in the world right now. The Obama administration is certainly not driving these reforms; no outsider is. But President Obama and Secretary Clinton deserve credit for the skill with which they have managed the opening. They have struck just the right balance between rewarding Myanmar for its reforms while pushing for more.

I couldn’t be happier for this land which has been victimized for so long by brutal oppressors. I can’t help thinking of all the wonderful Burmese I met–all of them working for paltry wages–who are both bewildered and overjoyed by their good fortune. They deserve a better future after so many years of suffering.


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