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Delight and disquiet — mixed emotions on Burma’s historic day

I was 10 years old when I first found out there was something seriously wrong with my country.

It was March 1988 and I had overheard bits of conversations between lugyis (Burmese for adults) about scuffles between students from the engineering university and security officials. As a kid, I wasn’t privy to the thoughts of the adults, but I could sense they were troubled.

Then one late afternoon, as I was talking on the phone to a friend, I could hear a song wafting through the air. As the noise came closer, my curiosity got the better of me. I hung up and ran upstairs two steps at a time to the shrine room, where a balcony overlooks the tree-lined avenue on which we lived.

Suddenly I saw prison vans. I can’t remember how many there were and all I could see were hands holding on to the metal bars of the small windows. The people inside were singing Burma’s national anthem, “Ka Bar Ma Kyay,” in a most mournful way I have not heard since.

Without having to ask anybody, I knew these must be students I had heard of or people with links to them. I remember bursting into tears. The lens through which I looked at my country changed forever.

Today, 28 years later, as I scrambled up the steps of the country’s bicameral parliament in Naypyidaw, I thought of my 10-year-old self.

I also thought of the millions of fellow Burmese citizens whose lives have been irrevocably changed by decades of brutal military rule and who, like me, never thought this day would come in our lifetime.

I came to the pristine capital, with its impossibly lush grounds and unbelievably wide boulevards, to cover the historic swearing in of Htin Kyaw, a close confidant of Aung San Suu Kyi, as Burma’s first elected civilian president since 1962.

The parliament was abuzz with anticipation. The NLD MPs had a spring in their steps. I spied parliamentary staff posing for photos with NLD MPs and taking pictures with their phones.

Minutes before the parliament was due to begin, Suu Kyi appeared, flanked by Htin Kyaw and Lower House speaker Win Myint. As they entered, I glimpsed civilian parliamentarians standing up as a gesture of respect, and I felt a lump in my throat.

As a Burmese citizen, I rejoiced at finally having a civilian president — especially one that, from all the accounts I’ve heard, is a very decent man — and a (mostly) civilian cabinet. I also happen to be a big fan of Htin Kyaw’s father, the renowned poet Min Thu Wun, whose nursery rhymes I grew up with.

As a journalist, however, I have many questions, concerns and misgivings about the idea of a NLD proxy presidency, the military’s continued grip on many levers of power, and the appointment of Myint Swe, a hardliner linked to bloody crackdowns on Burmese citizens, to vice-president.

Mixed emotions

Prevented by a military-backed constitution from becoming the president, Suu Kyi has publicly said she would be “above” the president and has been made minister with control over four portfolios: foreign affairs, education, energy and the President’s Office. What will this mean in practical terms?

From the appointment of cabinet ministers and chief ministers to the selection of media invited to cover the dinner tonight at the Presidential Residence, the NLD’s decision-making during the government formation has been far from transparent.

Would it be humanly possible for Suu Kyi to handle four very important portfolios? Also, should we be entrusting our country and economy to ministers who admitted they were duped into believing their fake PhDs as real? Why isn’t the cabinet and parliament more inclusive and diverse, given the make-up of Burma? Why aren’t there more ethnic representatives in the government? I haven’t seen any Hindus or Muslims either.

Where are the women in important decision-making roles? Out of 35 positions, there is only one female cabinet minister (Suu Kyi) and two female chief ministers. And how open and honest will the NLD-led government be, given that the party’s decisions up to now have been shrouded in secrecy?

As a journalist, my job is to question and to hold power to account. Seeing how the party and its supporters have treated anyone who is critical of the NLD has not been encouraging.

With all these thoughts whirling in my head, it was easy to forget that just a year ago, a day like today was completely unimaginable. A year ago, we were writing about the government’s brutal crackdown on student protesters, worried about the return of state-sponsored thugs, and alarmed by the rising Buddhist nationalism.

Even in the past few weeks, the behaviour of some members of the outgoing government have been far from gracious. Arrest and harassment of critics continued unabated. Ministers ignored parliamentary invitations to answer questions, the then-Minister of Information said the incumbent government may not be accountable to the new parliament. We read about officials stripping their government residences bare before leaving.

On Wednesday, we heard from the new president his vision of a new Burma — achieving peace, national reconciliation, a democratic constitution, a genuine federal union, and better standards of living for ordinary citizens.

The three-minute speech was short on details but long on symbolism. But to many who witnessed it, including myself, it was still historic. Local journalists are already hailing what they hope would be a pattern during Htin Kyaw’s presidency — short speeches.

It will be a very long and hard road ahead, not just for the government and parliament but also for ordinary citizens who have suffered so much yet remained hopeful.

So despite misgivings, I’m trying to stay alert but positive. My country has had enough of negativity.


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