By Nelly Boomstra
Myanmar is mysterious for a multitude of reasons, but lets stick to political ones for now. The body of land in between Thailand and India seemed hardly ever noticed until three years ago, when news articles started popping up sporadically. Aung San Suu Kyi – whom many see as the incarnation of the country’s democracy, elections, and in recent months, the ‘democratization’ has had many people talking.
What then is so mysterious about Myanmar – or is it Burma? Although the then-ruling military junta changed the name of the Southeast Asian country in 1989, depending on whom you talk to, and where you are, the name changes. Myanmar is used while in the country, by those in favor of the government and entities that acknowledge the government, such as NGOs, political institutions, etc.. Burma is the name given by those who are not in favor of the government.
In years to come after the name change, Burma would become increasingly cut off from the rest of the world. Getting tourist visa for the country has meant that you have to be cleared by a screening first; journalists, human rights activists and anyone perceived as a ‘threat’ was – and is – NOT welcome. These people whom have not gotten the chance to enter this otherwise so hospitable country, are registered on Burma’s Black List. The list obstructs anyone deemed as a danger to national security from entering or leaving the country. Last year – the summer of 2012 – approximately one third of the names on the list were cleared and can now enter and leave Burma. Potential travelers to and from the country include nationals, internationals and activists that were first perceived as threats.
This has not been the only limitation Burmese people have in staying in contact with the outside world. While what seems like the whole world utilizing the dot com, Burma remains its tough internet restriction policies. When using the World Wide Web, a plethora of websites cannot be accessed. Additionally, for the minority of people who actually have internet to their availability, waiting for web pages to upload generally takes some serious patience.
Calling, particularly by using a cell phone is not any easier than using the internet. Many urban households have landlines, and I have been told that people living in the area close to the Thai border, have Thai phone lines. This means that Thai lines may run approximately fifty kilometers into Burma, because calling would then be “cheaper” and “clearer”. Then there are cell phones, which until last year were gadgets for the rich and/or the famous, as SIM cards cost up to seven hundred – yes 700 – American dollars. Now SIM cards cost around one fourth of last year’s price and there is reception using international cell phones.
But the government is changing, right? Well, yes and no. In 2010 Burma had its first elections in more than twenty years, and although people were forced to vote on certain parties, the elections were rigged and one of the largest displacement of people in recent years took place as a result of it, it did lead to changes. The former dictator Than Shwe stepped down, making place Thein Sein, who has proven to be milder than the military junta leader.
What amazed people in early 2012, when images of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father started publicly appearing. When I made my first official trip to Burma, this was the talk of town. Until then, action was taken everyone that depicted her and her family members. This was the first concrete sensible form of change after Thein Sein’s inauguration, and the names of the Black List mentioned above and more lenient censorship regulations followed.
What has not improved are the clashes between the government and the ethnic minority groups. Since June, 2012 clashes in the eastern region of Rakhine State between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohignya appeared in the news. President Thein Sein’s response to the conflict was to relocate the Rohingya to somewhere outside of Burma’s borders. What came as a surprise is that the human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi has much ignored the clashes that have displaced thousands of people and killed a reported 188. More recently, conflict between the ethnic Kachin in the northern KachinState and the Burmese Army led to displaced people and casualties.
Myanmar, or Burma as I call it, was a mystery for its hermit status. Few people left or entered the country, and reliable information coming from inside Burma was extremely rare. Now, although the use of internet and cell phones, and Burmese exploring what happens beyond Burma’s borders and non Burmese entering the country, everything remains somewhat of a mystery. Whether or not ceasefires are signed and what areas are affected by the democratization are very much so in the news these days. However, incorrect information is the media, like before Thein Sein was appointed as president appears more often than you would think.
Due to Burma’s improvements, there is much in store for the country. For instance, with a range of natural resources its location between India and China could prove to be enourmously beneficial. On a social – or human rights note – the country has a more difficult road ahead. The political conflict in Kachin State and the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims that have recently spread from Rakhine State to other regions in the country are indications of Burma’s shaky political system. This also indicates that reaching the ‘political nirvana’, a democracy, remains a mystery.
 After this article was written, the prices of SIM cards have dropped significantly; at the moment -May 2013- it is possible to buy the mobile telephone cards for around € 1.50.
 Reliable statistics are difficult to get in Burma. Infrastructure is bad and in worse case scenarios traveling 100 kilometers, may take days. Those in charge of publishing statistics in news articles – foreigners – often do not have access to the areas they write about. All of this results in ambiguity regarding any statistics, and information from the country in general.