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


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.

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