Returning Home to Someplace Else: The New Everyday Life in a More Democratic Myanmar

We’ve all heard about countries transitions to democracy on the tv and radio, and from a global standpoint, they are widely accepted as being a step towards more free and equal societies (if done in the right way).  But what is it like for the everyday person living in the democratic transition?  Or better yet, what if you left your home for only 9 months, and return to find the pace you knew was no longer there?


“Against the rush, a moment of peace” by Black Dream

“The first time I saw an ATM machine in Yangon, I laughed!  I just couldn’t believe it”. Sanika Shah, economics and geography major at Clark shows me pictures from her most recent trip home to Burma this summer.  Though she, her parents and her younger brother were all born in India, her family moved to Yangon where she would grow up and go to high school.  Yangon, the second capital city of Myanmar (also referred to as Burma).

Myanmar’s most recent economic transformations have been a result of the political reformations that occurred from 2011 to 2012, which included the release of pro-democracy leader and political opposition to the government, Aung San Suu Kyi.  There are few of us who don’t remember the NLD’s leader’s release from house arrest over a year ago.  Hailed for her social graces, non-violent methods and her perseverance, Aung San Suu Kyi became the symbol for the hopes of democracy for the Burmese people in spite of years of strict, sometimes violent, military rule. 


“Nobody dared to talk about politics or say anything bad about the government to another Burmese, but because my family and I were considered foreigners and protected by the Indian government, they often unloaded everything they wanted to say with us”, she recalls.  “Burmese people, especially young people, really believed in Aung San Suu Kyi and when she was released, a lot of my friends went to the NLD office to watch her speech.  But people are still afraid of the government, even though the NLD can now be a public opposition party, and now Aung San Suu Kyi is more like a figurehead or a puppet- she cannot really do anything.  She has also not been very aggressive at all in approaching change either and a lot of young people are beginning to question her capabilities as a leader”.


myanmar obama

Graffiti by Arkar Kyaw, 11/17/12

When I asked if there had been any social reforms in the way of education for children or adults, she shook her head.  Though they are called the political reforms of 2011 to 2012, most of the changes felt by the Burmese have been due to economic reforms.  “In Yangon, almost nobody used to have cars.  You had to be rich- the military government put an import tax on the cars that almost doubled the price, and they were already expensive for Burmese people to buy.  Now, the import tax is gone and many people have cars.  But even the main roads in the city are only 2 lanes on either side and there is so much traffic.  To my old primary school, it used to take me 12 minutes to get there and now it takes almost 2 hours.  We also used to have really clean air, but now with all the cars it is becoming more polluted and no-one seems to care much about it”.

When I asked her if she plans to go back, she responds, “I will go back to see my family and Yangon will always be home, but I don’t think I want to live there in the future.  The Yangon where I grew up isn’t there anymore and I don’t believe it will ever be able to beat the memories of my childhood”.

“ I want to travel and see more” she admits with a smile. 

burmese woman
“Brimstone Dreams”

-Bridget Healy

For all things Burmese, check out the links below:

Burma in Transition- BBC News

They Call It Myanmar- Lifting the Curtain


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