For Now, A Chance To Breathe In Myanmar The rapid pace of change in Myanmar has surprised many, including a reporter who has been visiting for years. On his latest trip, he says he felt as if he'd arrived in the wrong country: It was welcoming to journalists and openly celebrated opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
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For Now, A Chance To Breathe In Myanmar

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For Now, A Chance To Breathe In Myanmar

For Now, A Chance To Breathe In Myanmar

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has taken another step toward reform. The Karen rebels, members of a Burmese minority group, met the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and also met the country's president. All of this follows opposition victories in a recent special parliamentary election.

The pace of reform has surprised many people, including NPR's former Far East correspondent Michael Sullivan, who returned to the country for the elections.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I get off the plane and almost immediately feel like I've come to the wrong country. There's a large blue sign at immigration that reads: Attention journalists covering the by-election, please register at the media counter. Media counter? My kind has never been welcome here. It's the first surprise in a trip full of them.


SULLIVAN: Songs like this, urgent, defiant, imploring, are almost common these days. Get up, Myanmar, this one commands, Get up. Unofficial translation: support Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

In my Myanmar, recording a song like this even a year ago would have been a fast track to jail. But on this visit I hear songs like it everywhere - though not in government-controlled media or sold openly in stores, where they're still banned.

In my Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi wasn't allowed out of her house, let alone into parliament, where her party took 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs on April 1.

In my Myanmar, Suu Kyi wasn't allowed to speak in public, and yet here she was on the day after the election, before thousands of supporters at NLD headquarters, not gloating, but speaking of the need for healing.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We also hope that we will be able to go further along the road to national reconciliation. We would welcome all parties who would wish to join us in the process of bringing peace and prosperity to our country.

SULLIVAN: In my Myanmar, such a speech was, well, unimaginable. And for a people whose neck has been under the heel of the military for so long, this election, and the run-up to it, was a chance to breathe openly, gleefully, for the first time in decades. And boy, did they grab it.


SULLIVAN: In Mandalay, the night before the election the streets were choked with jubilant Suu Kyi supporters. Think Times Square on New Year's Eve. The last time I saw so many people in the streets here was in September 2007 during the monk-led Saffron Revolution, when monks took to the streets en masse to march peacefully for political change.

Back then you could feel the excitement, but also apprehension, as people waited for the military to crush the monks, which it did, savagely, here in Yangon and elsewhere. But this time, no fear, just pure joy. Did you see that, a prominent businessman asked me the next day, incredulous; I'm 45 years old, he says, and I've never witnessed anything like it. And the military was nowhere to be seen, he said, smiling, shaking his head in wonder.

Back in Yangon, another sign of the times. A small shop near Shwedagon Pagoda, where workers, busy as Santa's elves, churn out NLD desk flags, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. This same shop used to sell government flags and military insignia. Not anymore, the shop owner says, and he can't stop grinning. I ask him if any of this would have been possible a year ago.


SULLIVAN: He laughs and crosses his wrists, mimicking being led away in handcuffs. No way, he says. Now I can't make this stuff fast enough. And nobody's come to bother me, he says. Not yet anyway.


SULLIVAN: Even the musician playing in the lobby of the elegant Strand Hotel, a colonial-era icon, seems to have a bit of a spring in his step. In my Myanmar, this hotel felt more like a morgue, the music a funeral dirge.

All of this, of course, could change in a heartbeat. President Thein Sein's decision to free Suu Kyi may yet backfire if government hardliners rebel, especially after last week's humiliating defeat. It could also be a problem for Aung San Suu Kyi if change comes too slowly or not at all.

But this isn't my Myanmar anymore, nor is it the military's. The genie is out of the bottle, for whatever reason. And it's going to be very, very difficult to put back in.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan.

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