A Taste of Freedom: Burma's Guarded Optimism

By Kulczuga, Aleksandra | World Affairs, March-April 2013 | Go to article overview

A Taste of Freedom: Burma's Guarded Optimism


Kulczuga, Aleksandra, World Affairs


The polite Burmese man guiding me through the ramshackle streets of Yangon smiles at my disbelief after he admits he paid over $6,000 for the SIM card in his unimpressive mobile phone a decade ago. "Yes, I know," he says. "It is far more than the phone itself costs," as though this were my concern.

The price of SIMs tells a compacted story of recent Burmese history. While prices have slowly gone down, a SIM card still cost more than $1,000 as recently as two years ago, as the ruling junta restricted access to cell phone networks to a very select few by charging astronomical prices for the necessary hardware, limiting the flow of information and lining its pockets at the same time. Then in March 2012, the year-old civilian government announced it was cutting the price of the cards in half, eventually allowing them to reach current lows of about $240. That may not seem like much of an improvement in a country where per capita GDP is only $1,300 and the same cards go for $5 in neighboring Thailand, but to the millions of Burmese who could now suddenly dream of owning a cell phone, it was an undeniable sign of progress.

Even impoverished North Korea has more cell phones per capita than Burma, and my GSM BlackBerry--which has worked in every corner of the globe from Alaska to Afghanistan--receives exactly zero bars of service there because the country has no roaming agreements with outside providers. But most Burmese see the bright side because the government has slowly relinquished power, and foreign companies are wing for the chance to come in and build a major network.

This year, as the pace of political reform has picked up, the Burmese have reacted with joy and incredulity. Until now, businessmen in Burma enjoyed a somewhat slower pace of life because smartphones were unable to retrieve e-mail and international calls rarely got through on the first try. All that is finally about to change.

In addition to releasing its grip on private communications, the government has also introduced almost unrestricted freedom of the press. In August, Tint Swe, head of the country's Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, announced that newspapers would no longer have to submit their copy to the censor's red pen before publication. There are still official guidelines in place for covering sensitive topics and journalists can get in trouble for offending government officials, but for the first time in fifty years there is no pre-publication censorship.

At one of the ubiquitous newsstands that now line the streets, a shopkeeper boasts that she has one hundred and sixty-six newspapers she could choose to sell, most of them privately run. At this time last year she had only four state-approved papers to offer. "The old newspapers were so boring," says one thirty-three-year-old man who has studied in Singapore and now works as a tour guide. "Now it's very fun to read the newspapers, because there is a lot of news about the world. In the old days we couldn't read anything about the Arab Spring, and now we can." He adds with a laugh: "We even make fun of Kim Jong-un, how he's eating caviar, and we call him a 'fat bastard.'"

The majority of the periodicals show longtime dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on their covers, and everyone is clearly still awestruck that the government allows it to happen.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made headlines in November 2011 when she became the senior-most US official to visit Burma in fifty years. When President Obama visited the country after his reelection in November 2012, the streets of Yangon boiled over with excitement and pro-America fervor over what until recently was an unimaginable happening.

Citizens have stopped holding their breath and waiting for the opening to close. Now that the reforms have so directly touched their lives, waves of pent-up political hopes are washing over the country.

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