Burma’s ‘New Era’: Hope, Humor and a Long Road Ahead

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Yangon / Xinhua / ZUMAPRESS.com

Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, Burma's opposition party, is greeted by supporters in Rangoon, the country's commercial capital, on April 2, 2012

On the morning of April 1, before the sun rose high above Rangoon, Zu Zu called her brother on the phone. “I have bad news,” she said.

Zu Zu, 23, radiant and quietly rebellious, left her hometown in the Shan Hills three years ago to join her brother in the country’s commercial capital. She journeyed south by bus and arrived, unannounced, in the moldering city. “I didn’t have a plan,” she said. “None.” But she did have a diploma and a network of friends from her state. She found a room and, eventually, a job. In her search for decent work and a livable wage, she’s since held at least seven gigs, including stints as a receptionist, a reporter and a freelance translator of pirated DVDs. Does she worry about her prospects? “A little,” she said. But she is good at getting by. Which is why her call stopped her brother cold.

Zu Zu told her sleepy sibling that she had lost her job and would have to return to their village. He was stunned. “Are you alright?” he asked. “What happened?” She kept him on the line — and on the hook — for more than a minute before she cracked. “April Fools!” she snickered. Eventually, he laughed along. He had to. “We tell these jokes all the time,” Zu Zu explained later, recalling her prank. “This is our reality.”

(PHOTOS: The Hope of Burma)

This week, for the first time in decades, Burma’s reality seems poised to change. On Sunday, April 1, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in a milestone by-election. Although official results have yet to be released, the NLD claims to have swept 43 of 44 races. For Suu Kyi, who spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest, it was a stunning reversal. For her followers, it was a rare chance for celebration. Young and old piled into pickups, honked horns and waved flags. They danced. They cheered. In her victory speech, Suu Kyi spoke, movingly, of a “hope for a new era.”

For most Burmese, that can’t come soon enough. For the better part of five decades their country has languished under authoritarian rule. The military junta that seized power in 1962 ruled with fearsome authority, jailing dissidents, waging war on ethnic rebels and stifling any whisper of dissent. Under their tenure, what was once a breadbasket for Asia became one of the world’s poorest countries. In 2010, the junta transferred power to a quasi-civilian government staffed mostly by retired generals and apparatchiks. The country’s new leader, Thein Sein, embarked on a series of reforms, freeing some political prisoners and loosening the state’s grip on the press. But power is still concentrated in the hands of a few. Outside these gilded circles, grinding poverty endures.

(MORE: Burma Holds Out the Promise of Reform, but Change Will Take Time)

Perhaps this is why, amid all the celebration, old doubts and dark jokes persist. People want change but are used to being disappointed. On the road to Kawhmu, Suu Kyi’s new district, villagers were wild about Suu Kyi but reserved when asked, What’s next? The dusty township needs clean water, basic sanitation and, more than anything, jobs. “We love her, but she hasn’t done much yet,” one farmer ventured. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Many Burmese, particularly the youth, find it hard to square the NLD’s lofty rhetoric with reality on the ground. Over tea and cigarettes with friends, Soe San, 23, said it’s too soon to talk of a new era. Like Zu Zu, he is new to Rangoon, a striver with big plans. He studies international relations at the University of Yangon and trains local leaders in community development. He knows it won’t be easy to build a new Burma. “Is Suu Kyi a magician who can wave her wand?” he asked. His friends chuckled. “Yes, we are trying to become a democracy, and yes, we are finally we are on that road, but it is still only a daydream.”

Zu Zu, the joker, shares the sentiment. Her dreams for the future are “change, change, change,” she said. And for tomorrow? “Work,” she deadpanned. She was kidding, of course. In Burma, that alone is an expression of hope.

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