Burma’s democratic reforms have fooled the foreigners, but for villagers not much has changed

Chin state, which borders India in the west, is a good place to observe the limitations of what has so far been achieved

Share

The euphoria of the reforms in Burma has burned off like mist. The new freedoms gained, the political prisoners back with their families, the newly launched newspapers pouring off the presses, hogtied by none of the old machinery of censorship – all this is true, and most welcome. But the astuteness of President Thein Sein was to target precisely those repressions and abuses most obvious and most obnoxious to the outside world. What remained largely untouched were the power relations that made life a grinding struggle for millions of ordinary Burmese.

Chin state, which borders India in the west, is a good place to observe the limitations of what has so far been achieved. This is the poorest state in the union, and it feels it. It is composed of forbiddingly steep mountains, with very little flat land. For centuries the Chin were nomads, practising swidden cultivation, worshipping their own animistic gods and staying well out of the way of marauding plainsmen. With British conquest, rapidly followed by conversion to Christianity by American Baptists, their destiny changed: they built little villages.

The new freedoms mean that the National League for Democracy and the Chin National Democratic Party function openly here, and will be contesting next year’s elections with the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military proxy party which swept the board in 2010. But when you ask the Chin nationalists what they will be campaigning for – other than Chin solidarity – they look blank.

The fact is that the elaborate democratic provisions of the 2008 constitution, on the basis of which the 2015 poll will almost certainly be conducted, do not impress the Chin. The appearance of local accountability is meticulously fostered. The reality of power on the ground is different.

Elsewhere, opening up has resulted in a stampede of foreign businesses to Asia’s last frontier. The lack of robust oversight has had the inevitable consequences for Rangoon’s traffic jams and air quality. Up in the mountains of Chin state, by contrast, the problem is how little has changed.

Take electricity. At present in Hakha, filthy generators provide it for four or five hours in the evening, and that’s it. Take education: this is the only state in Burma without a university of some sort, as a result of which hundreds of the local youth with the right qualifications for further education resign themselves to unskilled jobs, lacking the funds to study elsewhere in the country. Development? It’s hard to know what that might mean in a state as remote and resource-poor as this. The Chinese have been here surveying the minerals. That fact does not bring a smile to people’s faces. The general experience, as in many other countries, is that resources are a curse.

The reason I can write about this is because for the first time since 1962 – when the military seized power – foreigners have been allowed to travel here. But I fear that tourists will not be treading in my footsteps in large numbers any time soon: the state has no airport, and the ride from Mandalay took 15 bone-shuddering hours. The gangs of peasant women who have traditionally built all the roads were toiling in the traditional way, building roads as the ancient Britons must have built them for the Romans, by hand. That is the face of Chin state’s development.

On the plus side, in the villages one can enjoy a sort of rustic arcadia that exists in few places in Asia today, the young women on their sunny balconies weaving traditional skirts amid incredible tranquility.

If Burma’s reforms are to have any long-term significance here, the next challenge will be to involve the local community not in a pantomime of democracy but the real thing. I don’t see why that should be impossible.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Network Infrastructure Technical Lead - up to £45k DOE - Surrey

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Year 2 Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Technical Architect - Surrey - £35k-£45k DOE - Permanent

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Year 3 Teachers needed for supply roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Day In a Page

 

The Scottish people deserve the truth about North Sea oil and gas

Oliver Courtney
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week