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Burma Rebooted: Part 1 — The changing face of Burma

From censorship to cell phones, Burma isn't quite the repressive state it once was.

Cell phones are another anomaly. Until recently, SIM cards, the microchips that provide phones with a distinct number, cost $1,500. (Phone sold separately.) The regime-set rate meant only the extremely wealthy could afford mobile phones.

That was the point. With phones limited to the highest income bracket, spies had a smaller network to keep tabs on.

But as of this year, the SIM card price is $625. And according to the Myanmar Times newspaper, prices are set to fall even further.

But perhaps Burma’s currency, the kyat, is the mess crying loudest for a fix.

The government contends that six of their kyat are worth $1. No other institution agrees. The real rate, set on the black market, is roughly 13,000 percent higher.

There are no ATMs in Rangoon. Visitors are advised to bring US$100 bills for a black-market exchange. The Benjamins must be pristine: crisp, unblemished and issued after 2006, ideally bearing serial codes beginning with the letter H.

Rangoon’s fastidious dollar swappers conduct business in back alleys and beneath staircases. They examine visitors' $100 bills as a jeweler would diamonds. An infinitesimal smudge, the mere suggestion of a crease, and the bill is declared unworthy — or at least worth substantially less.

But there is hope yet for a cash-swap method less akin to scoring pot.

Burma’s government has already invited teams from the International Monetary Fund to untangle its its currency chaos. The next visit is set for early 2012. In the meantime, according to China’s Xinhua outlet, six private banks will be permitted to open exchange windows offering a legit rate.

But Burma’s government is obliged to move quickly. According to the IMF, Burma’s tangle of official and unofficial exchanges can wreak efficiency losses worth 14-17 percent of annual GDP.

Censorship abates

Along with these economic shifts, the media is also breathing easier.  

Over coffee at a cafe inside one of Rangoon's few high-rise buildings, a Burmese reporter (I’ll refer to him as Zaw) agreed to explain the constantly evolving restrictions.

You still can’t write about Than Shwe, the untouchable dictator general who was Burma’s head of state from 1992 until last year’s election. You cannot allude to a power struggle between hardliners and the ascendant reformers led by the general-turned-president Thein Sein.

“However, you can praise the president and say his reforms are an improvement on the past military government,” Zaw said. “It’s amazing!”

Earlier this year, journals devoted to lighter fare — sports, health and fortune-telling — were allowed to publish without first submitting articles to government censors. In October, the deputy head of Burma’s “Press Scrutiny” department, Tint Swe, told Radio Free Asia that “press censorship should be abolished in the near future.” His proposal: eliminating the filter for all publications.

Zaw is the play-it-safe type. His 10-plus years have taught him which questions risk detention and which ones allow him to return home for dinner with his wife. Even if censors stopped pre-filtering his copy, they could still punish him post-publication if he crossed the line.

Still, Zaw is often shocked by the newfound courage of young Burmese reporters. “These little guys and gals,” he said, “they keep asking harder and harder questions.”

The moment that really wowed Zaw took place in September. Hundreds of protesters dared to commemorate a 2007 monk-led “Saffron Revolution” uprising that was violently crushed by the army.

Zaw anticipated cracked heads. “But you know what happened? They didn’t throw everyone in the back of a truck. They negotiated with them.”

"Cannot retreat now"

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is headquartered in a two-story wooden home that smells like an antique shop. It is a Suu Kyi shrine: her photo hangs from every corner except for wall space allotted to images of her father or Che Guevara.

On one October afternoon, the headquarters greeted recently freed political prisoners. About 200 had just been released in amnesty with more than 6,000 common criminals. Many had shuffled out of Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison, walking barefoot on the sun-baked dirt, their belongings balanced in bundles on their heads. Gatherers outside received them with delighted cheers.

One week later, Suu Kyi's party was treating the ex-prisoners to a free curry plate and envelopes filled with about $12.50 worth of kyat. (Or, if you follow the government rate, $1,666.)

Would Suu Kyi make an appearance? Not today, visitors were told. She's off meditating.

“We want her health to be perfect. She wakes up every day, has a prayer service, and gets to work,” Tin Oo said. “She has conversations on the ... Sky? Skylight?” — Skype? — “Yes! Skype.”

Releasing political prisoners is among the loudest demand from US officials, including President Barack Obama. Since the election, the No. 1 prisoner, Suu Kyi, and about 315 others have been set loose.

According to most estimates, there are roughly 1,600-plus political prisoners remaining in prison. To many human-rights watchdog groups, this slow leak of prisoners is not up to speed.

“Does Amnesty International really expect, as per the proverbial and rhetorical words, that this should literally happen overnight? Yes, we do,” wrote Amnesty researcher Benjamin Zawacki in response to the latest release. “By their definition, prisoners of conscience should never have been detained in the first place.”

Along Burma’s other frontlines of abuse, the jungles where outgunned ethnic militias spar with Burma’s army, the situation appears to have worsened since the election. As Amnesty and other groups report, “widespread and systematic” crimes such as forced labor have continued unabated.

Tin Oo, a former army general, has seen the military’s inner workings and also felt its wrath. Since a falling out with the military in the 1970s, he has floated between freedom and prison. He went on to help Suu Kyi found her party in 1988.

While Burma seems on the cusp of great change, there have been similar times of openness in its history that have failed to turn into lasting reform. Burma experienced a period of relative respite from repressive policies in the summer of 1998, which directly preceded its deadliest crackdown in recent history.

Like most, Tin Oo doesn’t think the ruling party has suddenly discovered ethics. “They probably just want to save their skin,” he said. But he is convinced that, like it or not, cooperating with the men who’ve oppressed Burma is the key to helping it rise.

“The government understands that people desire peace at any cost,” Tin Oo said. “They cannot retreat now.”