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On Monday, a new political era begins in Myanmar. That's when Aung San Suu Kyi takes her seat in parliament. The activist, along with 42 colleagues from the National League for Democracy, won seats in the nation's first relatively free election in decades. The pace of political reform sanctioned by the military-backed government there has surprised many. And it has led to an easing of sanctions by the West.
Michael Sullivan reports on life in Myanmar during this moment of change.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: There are signs in the most unlikely places that people here are starting to believe the political reforms are more than just a trick. Take this recent performance of the Moustache Brothers vaudevillian troupe in the northern city of Mandalay.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SULLIVAN: The troupe performs in the family home. They're not allowed to perform in public. And their biting political satire, aimed at the generals and their cronies, has made them a favorite of Western tourists and diplomats. But these days, there's more music and less politics to their act, though brother Lu Maw still manages to get in a few shots, much to the delight of his audience.
LU MAW: While you are Burma here, please don't take anything. Don't steal anything. Government, they don't like competition.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MAW: They don't like competition
SULLIVAN: Brother Par Par Lay admits the Moustache Brothers are easing up a bit. But he still isn't convinced the reforms are real.
PAR PAR LAY: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: The same guys are still in power. They've just taken off their uniforms, he says. Yes, the changes so far have been good, but there are still many political prisoners still in jail.
Locked up by the military on three separate occasions, Par Par Lay has reason to be suspicious.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generation student group who spent 18 years in prison, is more optimistic. Ko Ko Gyi was one of those released earlier this year and says he believes President Thein Sein is a good man and sincere about reform. But what about the rest of the military?
KO KO GYI: Nobody knows. But we think the present government or former military leaders, they realized themselves they would have to change. They cannot go on like this.
SULLIVAN: Couldn't go on, some say, because the generals feared the Arab Spring would come here. And couldn't go on because of their international isolation and their fears about neighboring China, one of Myanmar's few foreign friends.
Maung Wuntha is another former political prisoner and onetime NLD MP. He spent eight years in jail and now publishes a weekly newspaper, The People's Age.
MAUNG WUNTHA: They have no foreign assistance, and they are facing the sanctions. And, at the same time, they know the danger of China. They have awareness that Chinese exploitation in economic field is very dangerous for the country.
SULLIVAN: Some part of the military leadership feared that Myanmar was being swallowed economically by China?
WUNTHA: China. Yes. So this feeling probably pushed some idea to change their mind for reforms.
SULLIVAN: The easing of sanctions that has followed the reforms may help placate hard-liners in the military and their supporters. And it should have a positive effect when it comes to investment in Myanmar and its people, a country already near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.
ANDREW KIRKWOOD: The 46 countries in that low HDI category get an average of $77 per year of assistance, and Myanmar gets 8.
SULLIVAN: And to compare it to the neighbors, Cambodia or...
KIRKWOOD: Yeah. Cambodia gets about seven times more assistance than Myanmar, and Laos about five times more per person.
SULLIVAN: Andrew Kirkwood is director of the U.N. project LIFT aimed at improving food security and livelihoods for the rural poor. He spent six years before that as Myanmar country director for Save the Children.
KIRKWOOD: Children die at a faster rate here than in any other country in Asia, after Afghanistan. And about 10 children under 5 die every hour, and they die of three main causes: They're malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea; three things that we know how to prevent and we certainly know how to cure in the 21st century.
SULLIVAN: Kirkwood says the international community has neglected the people of Myanmar for too long. He's hopeful political reforms will lead to an increase in aid, but says he hopes it won't be tied to the continuation of the political process. It's not fair to withhold aid to a country's people, he says, just because you don't like its government.
But 88 Generation activist Ko Ko Gyi says he's convinced the process is irreversible.
GYI: I think maybe slow or fast, but the direction is going on, going forward. This is the first step forward.
SULLIVAN: And if he's right, the Moustache Brothers may have to retool their act even further. They might even be allowed to take it on the road.
For NPR news, I'm Michael Sullivan.
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