Anjali Rao hosts a special edition of Dateline from Myanmar, looking at how well the country is coping with the massive change in its emergence into democracy.
When pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi emerged after 15 years of house arrest, it signalled to the world that Myanmar was on the cusp of change. Since then the country opened up beyond anybody's expectations. What does the march to democracy really mean for the people of Myanmar after decades of suffering? Anjali Rao spent the last week here finding out.
REPORTER: Anjali Rao
Coming to Myanmar is for me a profoundly personal journey into my own family history. My father was born here and carved out a successful career as a doctor until the military ceased control in 1962. Targeted by the state for being an Indian national, he was forced to abandon his home and flee overseas - part of a mass exodus of an estimated 300,000 ethnic Indians.
Modern day Myanmar is still plagued by ethnic divisions but life here is transforming. One of the biggest changes is in free speech. Tonight a live comedy show is being broadcast to the nation to mark International Peace Day. The organiser is Zarganar, Myanmar's most famous comedian and a former political prisoner.
REPORTER: Zarganar, what does tonight symbolise?
ZARGANAR, COMEDIAN: We can say this is the first time in the history of our country, all of the people can watch and every comedian can speak their jokes freely. There is no censor, no ban. Over the 35 numbers of the Ministers will come to here, and sit there and they can listen how they criticise them, the comedians.
Former Major General Aung Min is a Government Minister and a key peace negotiator. He is taking up Zarganar's invitation to hear the comedians barbs first hand. But the opening act begins with an unexpectedly serious message.
FIRST COMEDY ACT (Translation): I'd like to criticise the military offensives. We really;.we really pity the suffering of the victims, our fellow citizens. Please stop the military offensives. Please be united, our fellow ethnic nationalities.
The jokes that follow take aim at the Government's economic mismanagement, the soaring price of living and widespread corruption.
FIRST COMEDY ACT (Translation): In hell, the electricity meter is stuffed down the officials' throats! Even though they happily chew on them!
They are very happy even though they are in hell!
The humour may seem mild but this is a country where until recently comedians had to submit their gags to Government censors. Tonight even the Minister is laughing along.
REPORTER: What have you witnessed as far as the pace of change in Myanmar?
ROSS DUNKLEY: Things have definitely quickened up immensely. It wasn't so long ago that people were riding around with push bikes.
Few Australians are watching the transition to democracy as avidly as Ross Dunkley, the country's only foreign media magnate.
ROSS DUNKLEY: People are enjoying their first taste of democracy in half a century.
He arrived here 13 years ago, building a unique and sometimes testy relationship with the generals to set up the nation's first independent weekly newspaper.
ROSS DUNKLEY: A lot of people were critical about the 'Myanmar Times', that we were lackeys of the Junta that we were prostitutes. We were just on the ground engaging with the military dictatorship. We were of the view that it's better to be on the field and playing than off the field and screaming. Like some hysterical housewife. Every week we were attempting to lift the bar just a little bit higher.
While newspaper readership is collapsing elsewhere in the world, in Myanmar business is booming. It was only in April this year that the Government ended a state monopoly on the daily press. For the previous five decades it had been more interested in censoring, jailing or torturing journalists deemed critical of the State.
ROSS DUNKLEY: You know, here in Myanmar it's a booming media scene and with the relaxation of censorship in the last six months we've had 13 dailies open up.
REPORTER: That's incredible - 13 dailies in six months.
ROSS DUNKLEY: Here is a selection of the dailies, 'The Voice', 'The Yangon Times', 'The Seven Day Daily'. The freedom of speech for me has got to be at the forefront of any change. Unless you can have a free and open media, how can you claim to have any sort of democracy? For me that's the baseline.
PROTESTER (Translation): Whose land is it in Mikyaung Kan?
CROWD (Translation): Our land! Our land!
PROTESTER (Translation): Does the land belong to the military?
CROWD (Translation): No, no.
This protest is about one of the most contentious issues in the new Myanmar. Land grabbed by the former military rulers. Just a few years ago, a gathering like this would never have been tolerated by the authorities. These people have been fighting for more than 20 years to regain their land in south-east Yangon.
PROTESTER (Translation): The army forced all of us to move out at gunpoint. Some fearful people moved out but some didn't. The army bulldozed the land and sent them to Insein Prison.
A 1,000 families lost their homes. It's the kind of injustice we hear again and again.
PROTESTER (Translation): We dared not speak up in the past. Now we dare to because we have been given the right. We think the president and the government will consider our demand favourably. So we are demanding very bravely.
Under old laws still in place, demonstrators can face hefty jail sentences simply for protesting without permission. In this case, the authorities had agreed but protestors were being closely watched. Around the corner, we found four truckloads of police ready to react to any trouble.
CROWD (Translation): May the whole country be peaceful! May Burma be peaceful!
KO MOE THWAY, ACTIVIST: We are here because we need peace. Also because of the 2008 constitution we have so many problem and we have so many conflict in our country.
For activists like this Generation Wave leader Ko Moe Thway, political change isn't much easier. Last year he led a peace rally without getting permission. He and eight other organisers now face up to 20 years in prison and a gruelling trial process that's more like a full-time job.
REPORTER: How many times have you been to court?
KO MOE THWAY: I think more than once at a time we have been in the court 130 times.
REPORTER: 130 times, wow. How do you view this particular Government?
KO MOE THWAY: I would say that the country has changed than before but the thing is, we need to wait and watch carefully where this change is leading to. So we cannot say everything will be good.
One of the key milestones of Myanmar's reforms has been the release of hundreds of political prisoners. But many remain behind bars, with new arrests and trials still being reported every month. I've come to see Than Maw, a woman who knows only too well how those viewed as troublemakers are treated. Her husband Ko Htin Kyaw is a veteran political campaigner.
THAN MAW (Translation): I am really proud of him. I couldn't have done it.
REPORTER: How does it make you feel when you look at pictures of your husband?
THAN MAW (Translation): Only a few politicians can nurture that kind of political commitment. So I am proud of him, not just as a husband, but as a good citizen of the country.
KO HTIN KYAW (Translation): We don't want crony-ocracy!!!
CROWD (Translation): We don't want it!!
KO HTIN KYAW (Translation): We don't want crony-ocracy!!!
CROWD (Translation): We don't want it!!
At a protest three months ago he planned to make a citizens arrest on a businessman he accused of land grabbing but he ended up in custody himself, charged with insulting the state, he faces two years in jail.
KO HTIN KYAW (Translation): The government must solve the problems the people are facing, if the government ignores the suffering of the people we cannot call it a democratic government. It is a crony-ocracy government that protects the cronies.
Than Maw is three months pregnant and is faced with bringing up her baby alone.
THAN MAW (Translation): Despite them saying the country is changing, we cannot say we see any noticeable changes. In the past anyone who called for democracy was jailed. Now the government itself calls for democracy, but it's just rhetoric. I think that this government is about 10 percent better than the last government.
Talky, Shell and Bobo are former political prisoners, between them they have spent 30 years in jail. Faced with the difficulties you have life on the outside, they set up Golden Harp, a taxi company with a difference.
REPORTER: Hi, can I hop in? Thanks.
There's a deep stigma attached to being a political prisoner in today's Myanmar. It's hard to find employment or to be accepted by society.
SHELL (Translation): The main objective of Golden harp is to help and support the former political prisoners as much as we can.
Golden Harp provides valuable stability for former prisoners. It also gives drivers like Shell a chance to educate their mainly foreign passengers.
SHELL (Translation): We share our Burmese politics with them and we highlight the abuses and wrongdoings of the previous government with constructive criticism.
We are on our way to a place well-known to employees of Golden Harp, Yangon's sprawling Insein prison. Notorious for the mental and physical torture inflicted on its inmates.
SHELL (Translation): The most difficult time for me was being alone in prison without a visitor for more than a year. I was not allowed to talk to anyone and I was starving. We tried to endure in the prisons. Some people went mad. Some people have stayed mad. Some people have lost their speech. Once some of our friends were released from prison, they died soon afterwards because of what they'd suffered. I feel really sad about that.
REPORTER: Have you ever asked Shell to stop being involved in politics?
LWIN MAR, SHELL'S WIFE: Sometimes I will like him to stop, but he doesn't want to stop, but he does not want to stop.
Shell's wife Lwin Mar says like everybody in Myanmar, all they want is a life free from oppression. But even now that the couple are worried that Shell could be arrested at any time.
LWIN MAR: Even nowadays I worry for his health, because he was mentally or physically tortured for nearly 14 years.
REPORTER: Do you still see evidence of all of that time that Shell spent in prison?
LWIN MAR: Sometimes he doesn't want to stay alone in the home because he thought he will be captured, so he will always try and go out if I'm not at home.
REPORTER: oh my goodness!
LWIN MAR: Because he was locked in the isolated for many many years - this is our life we cannot stop it.
It's the younger generation lapping up new freedoms and pushing boundaries. None more so than the Me N Ma girls. Modelled on Britain's Spice Girls they are the country's first all girl group, and today they have invited me to their Yangon studio to watch a rehearsal for their latest single.
ME N MA, SONG: I am strong # Got to stand tall # This is my world # Nothing is going to shake it.
We girls stand for like everybody who are sad, down and who feel unhappy about their life. Because now everything is changing and it starts to change right now.
# I'm stronger now # So it's goodbye.
The Me N Ma Girls are out to smash the stereotype that the women in Myanmar are timid and modest. Breaking the mould has its challenging even for a pop band. In the past the girls have had their lyrics and their fashions censored by the State.
REPORTER: So these days do you feel like you are allowed to sing about whatever you want?
ME N MA: We can sing whatever we want but we have to sing within the boundaries. We know how far we can go so we are in the boundaries but we are still pushing the boundaries.
The girls have been working hard for years to cut through the conservatism of their country. Now with growing freedoms, these talented young women see a bright future.
REPORTER: What do you think about the direction of this country right now?
ME N MA: I believe our President and he is going really well, and also we support our President to get good democracy. I do believe and I want to believe that this will last forever. We just want to go forward, that's all we need to do and all we want to do.
With its exposure to the world Myanmar is attracting plenty of attention. The country has thrown its doors open to visitors. In the last year, the number of tourists has doubled and investors are flocking. So how does Myanmar's Government rate its progress? I've come to one of the capital emptiest cities to find out. Naypyidaw was born in 2005, when parliament was built on a Greenfield site 300km north of Yangon. Here, farmers live in the shadow of Myanmar's most powerful people and constant reminders of military rule.
If there's a symbol of the bad old days it's this, a 20-lane Highway running past Parliament that rarely sees more than a handful of cars, the sort of waste of the former military Government everybody hopes is consigned to the past as Myanmar travels its own road to democracy.
U Ye Htut is the Information Minister and spokesman for the President.
REPORTER: U Ye Htut, thank you very much for speaking to us today. First of all, where are we on the path to democracy in this country?
U YE HTUT, INFORMATION MINISTER: So now we are entering the second 2.5 years of our transition to democracy. So if we look back at those past 2.5 years we made a lot of achievements. But now we also have a lot of challenges.
REPORTER: Let's talk about the issue of political prisoners. How many are there in jail right now in Myanmar?
U YE HTUT: I cannot tell that in exact number.
REPORTER: Around about?
U YE HTUT: I think just maybe 200 or 300.
REPORTER: It does seem entirely contradictory to the notion of democracy though that there would be any political prisoners in jail right now?
U YE HTUT: The President promised that at the end of this year there will be no more political prisoners in our country.
REPORTER: And yet people who are protesting on political grounds are still finding themselves in prison for violating Article 18;.
U YE HTUT: Yes.
REPORTER: ;.which is about not getting permission to protest. That seems to me and to many others I'm sure watching this, nowhere near a serious enough issue to go to jail for, not even for a day.
U YE HTUT: Yeah but that's a law. So that now that law was approved by the Parliament. Now the Parliament is trying to review that particular article, Article 18.
REPORTER: It wasn't that long ago that somebody would be jailed for criticising the administration. How does it feel now to be on the side where you are being criticised?
U YE HTUT: In the first years we are not very used to that kind of criticism. So sometimes some of the Government officials are angry about that criticism. But the President said you have to face this kind of criticism and what you have to do is to present the truth and to present the transparency of the government - the best thing to deal with the media.
REPORTER: How do you want the world to see Myanmar?
U YE HTUT: I want the world to see that Myanmar as you know, the country and the people who are trying their best to achieve their democratic goal. Sometimes we lack the experience. So we want the international community to see we are struggling to achieve our goal and try instead of blaming us, to please give your helping hand to us.
Elections in 2015 will do much to test the Government's appetite for change and the eyes of the world are watching. Today former US President Jimmy Carter is paying a visit after a series of meetings to check on democracy's progress. In the middle of the journalistic throng, veteran newspaper journalist and political prisoner, Thiha Saw.
JIMMY CARTER: Man up the front?
THIHA SAW: Thank you Mr President. Are we moving? Are we moving in the right direction, in the right place?
JIMMY CARTER: I think the entire world has been pleasantly surprised at the degree of progress that has already been made in just a brief 2.5 years since the last election. But a lot of change still needs to be made here.
The magnitude of what this country still faces is daunting. Ethnic conflicts are ongoing, hundreds of laws have to be rewritten and the constitution that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from ever becoming President needs to be overhauled. Thiha Sau says the people of Myanmar must be patient.
REPORTER: As far as Myanmar's path to democracy, where are we at this present moment in time?
THIHA SAW: We still have a long way to go and then we are not really sure that we could reach there and then that may take three years, maybe 20 years, we don't know. Hopefully we have taken the first few steps in the right direction.
U YE HTUT: Sometimes lack of experience, lack of human resources and lack of financial and technical knowledge is a problem on our process. So to be seen as children who try to grow up and to enter the world, so you have to help us.
Well, despite the divisions, I have noticed one common trade tying together all who I spoke to. From pop stars to prisoners, everybody here is committed to this country's future and ensuring that history stays exactly that. Our website has more on the people in that story, including the Me N Ma Girls, showing how they embrace the new luxuries of the internet and social media. Plus some behind-the-scenes insights into our travels here.
SOE MYAT THU
ZAW NAING OO
Original Music Composed by
8th October 2013