NEAL CONAN, HOST:
For decades, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was confined to her home and forbidden to speak in public. In two weeks, she takes a seat in Myanmar's parliament. Earlier this month, she let her party, the National League for Democracy, to a comprehensive victory. The NLD won 43 of 45 seats in a special election. And that's not the only sign of change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited late last year. British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives later this week. A country long under the heel of a ruthless military dictatorship is beginning to open up and restore economic and political ties to the outside world.
Michael Sullivan was NPR's longtime corresponded in Southeast Asia. He returned to Myanmar recently and joins us now by phone from his home in Northern Thailand. Michael, nice to have you back.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Nice to be back, Neal.
CONAN: All right. You've covered this country for years. What was different for you on this trip?
SULLIVAN: Just about everything was different for me on this trip. I mean, I think the most telling thing for me was the fact that Suu Kyi's party won 43 of the 45 seats, as you mentioned, in the by-election. But that number included in the military's own backyard in the new capital, Ne Pyi Daw, where you would think - it's populated by civil servants mostly and military, and you would think that people there would know who punches their meal ticket, and yet even they voted against the ruling party and voted for the NLD. So I think that's pretty telling, and I think that that's indicative of the feeling all over the country now.
I mean, people have obviously had it with the military. They've had it with the new military-installed government, which they just view as the military that's taken off their uniforms, which is true to a certain extent. And the people want change. And for reasons we're not quite sure about, the new leadership has decided change will come.
CONAN: And there was a moment, what, five years ago or so, the so-called Saffron Rebellion, when monks were calling - leading demonstrations for change. And there were people then who thought change was coming, but as you noted in the piece I heard this morning, people were looking over their shoulders at the same time.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. And, you know, I was there then and I was in Mandalay at the time and I was also in Yangon. And you're right. I mean, people were - they were really excited because, you know, they had all these pent-up frustration of decades of living under the military. So when the monks went into the streets, they were very excited. But they were also so scared because they just knew that the other shoe would drop. And this time around, there was absolutely none of that feeling whatsoever.
I mean, people were just out in the streets in mile-long convoys of NLD cars and trucks and buses, waving the fighting peacock flag of the NLD. And you couldn't see the military anywhere. And I thought that was a very telling sign as well. They just decided to let this thing go and to move forward.
CONAN: And there is...
Things are moving forward a little bit, yeah. There's already been a response from the international community.
And there are those who say now is the time to lift all those sanctions to get economic activity going again in Myanmar and trade with the outside world. There are other people who say wait a minute, let's go cautiously.
SULLIVAN: Right. And I think softly, softly is the - definitely the Obama administration's approach, and it's probably the right one at this point. You don't want to give up everything at this point because you want the generals to keep on with the reforms that they've initiated over the last year and just want to ease sanctions slowly as more reforms become apparent and it becomes more apparent that they're actually really committed to these reforms. And I think that's a good thing to do.
But the biggest problem right now that I see facing the country is solving the ethnic minority problem, and Aung San Suu Kyi has referred to this in her speeches after the election. You know, national reconciliation is not just about reconciling with the military. It's also with reconciling with these various ethnic groups that have been fighting the Myanmar government for years. And the Karen are now in peace talks, and they're the biggest group.
But the Kachin are still fighting the military - or I should say the military is still cracking down on the Kachin, and that shows no sign of ending any time soon. So you've got to solve those problems too if you're going to have a peaceful, democratic Myanmar. And I think we're still a long way from that. And you also have to remember that, you know, this by-election, 45 seats, you know, Suu Kyi's party is going to have - the National League for Democracy is going to have less than 10 percent of the seats in parliament. So in terms of a voting bloc, it's not going to, you know, have that much strength. But symbolically it's hugely important that she'll be taking her seat on April 23rd.
CONAN: And doesn't Myanmar still operate under a constitution that gives the military a predominant role?
SULLIVAN: Yes. And, in fact 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military, for people in uniform. And in the constitution, if the military feels like things are going off the track, they can step back in and take control again. So you've got 25 percent of the seats that are held by men with uniforms, and then you have the majority of the rest of the seats, which are held by men who, until very recently, wore uniforms but took them off to go into parliament.
CONAN: And is there a feeling that if things go too quickly, if they seem to be spinning out of control, the military would come back?
SULLIVAN: There was a feeling over the last couple of days before I left that the military-backed ruling party was just a little taken aback by this humiliating defeat. I mean, they only won one seat and that hardliners in the party might not have taken too kindly to what happened and might want to retaliate in some way. And I think some people are afraid that some disgruntled hardliners might try to retaliate against Aung San Suu Kyi, which, of course, would be a disaster for the reform process and a disaster for the country. But so far, that hasn't happened yet, and now, they're talking about trying to reinvent themselves in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
And if last week's election results were any indication, the NLD looks like it would sweep those elections, and then what happens to the military-backed ruling party? I mean, they're out the door, and then if you - if the NLD, for example, had a majority in parliament - I know we're getting ahead of ourselves - but if they had a majority, then they could actually talk about rewriting that constitution, yeah?
CONAN: And at that point, push comes to shove, no?
SULLIVAN: Push could come to shove, yes. I mean, people used to having their way for a very long time aren't usually very eager to give up what they have.
CONAN: There is also the question - and you've mentioned these ethnic conflicts - this regime has been brutal. I don't think there's - that's too strong a word, and there are going to be questions raised about crimes that were committed in some of those conflicts.
SULLIVAN: Yes. But my feeling is - all you hear Aung San Suu Kyi talk about right now is the need for reconciliation and the need for healing, and you don't hear her talking about the need for retribution. And I think that's - I mean, that's part of who she is, but I also think that's very smart because, you know, if you start talking about retribution, then you make these military people who carried out some of these brutal acts - you make them a little bit nervous, right, because they think they're going to be targeted. And then they're going to be less inclined to give up any more power, right, because they don't want to end up in the slammer. So I think Suu Kyi has been doing, you know, the right thing by stressing reconciliation, not revenge.
CONAN: And at the same time, has the Burmese economy been responding? This is one of the most poor - poorest countries in the world.
SULLIVAN: It's going to take a while because, you know, sanctions haven't really been lifted to any great extent yet. So the trickle-down from that is going to take a while. But I'll tell you one thing. Tourism has already taken off. I mean, good luck getting a hotel room in Yangon these days. I mean, there are so many foreign businessmen flying into Yangon, trying to do deals with the government and trying to set up companies in anticipation of sanctions being lifted, that almost every hotel in the city is completely booked and have all raised their prices to absurd levels compared to what it was before. And, you know, that's a sign that the international business community does see a lot of opportunity in Myanmar and that they expect the sanctions, or most of the sanctions, to be lifted pretty soon, and that's going to help the economy, yeah?
CONAN: And businessmen from where?
SULLIVAN: Businessmen from all over. Businessmen from Asia, of course. Businessmen from America. Businessmen from Europe. And the Asia thing reminds me of one other thing. And I think this gets to the question of: why is the regime opening up? I think that the Myanmar government, the people in charge don't want to be swallowed up by China. And they saw China as their only patron for a long time. And they don't want to be isolated anymore. They don't want to be beholden into China, and they don't want China to be the one to come in and take all their natural resources and everything else. They want to balance China off India and the U.S., and they want to have a coherent foreign policy that's not, you know...
SULLIVAN: ...dominated by one single country.
CONAN: And this in the context of several deals to construct dams with the power going to China, constructed by Chinese companies and virtually Chinese sovereign states that were constructed to accommodate the workers for these facilities.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. And this is the way that Chinese work all over the region, and then that's why a lot of countries in the region are fearful to Chinese. They're very generous with their loans. Most of the loans don't require any payback. But they send in their own workers to construct the projects, and then obviously, most of the benefits go back to the Chinese. You see that all over in Southeast Asia.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Sullivan, the long-time Southeast Asia correspondent for NPR News, now, a freelance reporter based in Northern Thailand and recently returned from another trip to Myanmar, the country also known as Burma. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And one of the changes, Michael, I have to ask you about censorship in Burma; tightly controlled media for many, many years or decades. Has that begun to loosen up?
SULLIVAN: Oh, very definitely. I mean - and that was even the case when I made my last trip there six months ago. I mean, you could see - six months ago, you could see pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi on the covers of newspapers and newsmagazines. And only, you know, a few months before that, doing something like that would have got me thrown in jail, putting her on the cover. Now, her face is everywhere all over the media and even to a certain extent in the government-controlled media, to a lesser extent than anywhere else.
And I think most journalists feel that the censorship has been eased to a remarkable degree, if we're grading on a curve here, and I would say - and I've heard this said to me by several Myanmar journalists - that censorship has been eased about 75 percent. But there's still that other 25 percent that if you write something that goes a little bit too far, it gets cut up.
CONAN: There was also a...
SULLIVAN: But that part remains.
CONAN: As part of the deal where Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to resume participation in politics and run for a parliament that she had previously described as illegitimate, well, part of that was to release a whole bunch of political prisoners. Have all of them been released?
SULLIVAN: Many of them have been released, but not all of them, and there's still several hundred political prisoners by most estimates that are still in jail, and these include a lot of former top NLD people and the several monks who helped organized that 2007 uprising and several members of the Generation 88 - student generation. They're still in jail, although I met with a bunch who had been let out in January, you know - so just a couple of months ago - and they seemed fairly convinced that the rest would get out, you know, slowly, but get out eventually.
CONAN: And how much of the political future of Myanmar depends on the singular personality of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi?
SULLIVAN: That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? I mean, she is such a dynamic figure, but she is just one woman. And you go around Myanmar today, and you talk to people, and they talk about Suu Kyi, and they talk about the President Thein Sein, and they talk about the personal relationship that those two have, and how good it is, and how good that is for Myanmar, but they only talk about those two people. And, you know, God forbid, what should have - what would happen if those two political actors weren't on the stage? I mean, would this thing still go at this - at the dizzying pace that we've seen over the past year? Or would it slow down? Or would the hardliners step into the vacuum? Those are the questions that I ask myself, and I don't know what the answer is.
CONAN: The NLD Party, obviously, it's more than one person, but that one person is so identified with its - she is the NLD.
SULLIVAN: She is the NLD to the extent when the government held this general election in 2010, the last general election in 2010, and Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, and she wasn't allowed to participate, she told the NLD, or the NLD basically decided that they weren't going to participate in that election at all. So that's why you have so many members of the military-backed party in parliament right now. And some Burmese analysts would argue that that might have been a mistake, that Suu Kyi should've allowed her party to compete in those elections because the NLD would now have more seats in parliament. But I can't tell if it was the right thing to not participate or not.
But I can tell you, without the galvanizing presence of Suu Kyi on the campaign trail, the NLD would have had a very much harder time trying to win seats because, you know, everyone wanted to see the lady, and everyone who voted, voted, you know, not just for their local NLD candidate, they were voting for the lady. I mean, I heard this all over. Some of them didn't know who the local candidate was, didn't matter. They were just voting NLD. So without her singular presence, I don't know what would happen.
CONAN: And, well, we just have a minute left, but we have seen some previously elected members of parliament now deciding, well, maybe the wind is blowing in one particular direction, and they may want to caucus with the NLD and change parties.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. So the next three years are going to be interesting, aren't they? Because if this process continues, then Myanmar really is moving towards democracy, and you'll see some of this people, I mean, Shwe Mann, the former number three in the military junta, he's a very savvy, very charismatic politician who's now in the lower house of parliament, and, you know, he's one of the guys who's saying, whoa, this party didn't too well. Our party didn't too well in this election, so we need to reinvent ourselves, and we need to reach out a little bit. And, you know, if the NLD - I mean Suu Kyi and people like Shwe Mann can find some common ground, I think that will help the country greatly in making this a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much.
SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Neal.
CONAN: Michael Sullivan with us from his home in Northern Thailand. He served for many years as Southeast Asia correspondent for NPR News. Tomorrow, should teachers be fired for what they post online in their own time? We'll talk about the private lives of public servants tomorrow in this hour. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.