YANGON, Myanmar (Burma)-Sung San Suu Kyi, the "Great Lady" of Myanmar and a global icon of democracy, arrived in Bangkok on May 29-her first trip abroad in 24 years. Fifteen of those years were spent under on-again, off-again house arrest at the hands of Myanmar's military dictatorship, but even during her seasons of freedom she elected to remain in her home country, more popularly known as Burma, rather than cross the border and risk not being allowed to return home.
Suu Kyi attended the World Economic Forum in Thailand last month, hearing speakers and panelists address political and economic issues affecting Asia and the globe. She remained in listening mode throughout each session, refraining from speaking to the media or submitting questions to panelists-even when the topic for discussion was her own country and the cause of freedom she herself has come to symbolize.
Before mixing with powerful diplomats and business leaders at the forum, Suu Kyi ventured out to visit the town of Mahachai, home to the largest population of migrants from Burma living in Thailand. She listened to migrant workers describe some of the daunting problems they face-poverty, mistreatment by employers, trafficking, child labor, and lack of legal standing to defend their rights. Brokers with ties to gangs and corrupt government officials lure many Burmese into Thailand with false promises of a better life, and the migrants find themselves unable to return. Addressing a crowd of thousands from a community center balcony, Suu Kyi offered words of encouragement and-as a newly elected member of parliament-promised to try to help them.
Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), captured 43 of 45 parliamentary seats in special elections in April. The party wields a popular influence far greater than its numerical strength in the 600-member assembly, which remains dominated by the pro-military ruling party. President U Thein Sein, a former general, has surprised many observers by taking significant steps toward democratizing the authoritarian regime and liberalizing the state-run economy. He has also released hundreds of political prisoners and negotiated cease-fire agreements with major armed ethnic rebel groups.
Visiting leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon applaud such progress, and the European Union, along with Australia and Canada, rewarded the government by voting to suspend long-term sanctions. Japan has also agreed to forgive some $3.8 billion in outstanding debts and resume development loans to Myanmar. The Obama administration has taken a more circumspect approach, upgrading diplomatic ties and easing sanctions, but-with pressure from Congress-has refused to lift sanctions until further reforms are made. Thein Sein appears ready to loosen the grip of military dictatorship, but the military itself remains a powerful ruling force.
On a recent visit to Myanmar, I was eager to talk to citizens on the ground and hear their views of these developments. My previous visit in November 2010 had coincided with the release of Suu Kyi from house arrest. At that time I felt very conspicuous as I joined the crowd gathered to hear her speak outside NLD party headquarters, and my Burmese pastor friend was clearly nervous about government security personnel seeing him there.
This time another pastor friend (who is not named for security reasons) drove me through Yangon while pointing out infrastructure improvements and newly opened businesses. (Driving in Burma is very disconcerting, as nearly all the vehicles are Japanese models built for driving on the left, and unsuited for traffic that flows on the right as in the United States.)
We drove by Suu Kyi's home, where a newly erected brick and concrete wall separates it from the road, and wide new sidewalks line both sides of the street. What other changes under the new government are taking place? I asked the pastor.
"Practically speaking, one of the best changes has been the availability of electricity. In summers past, we often had power only four hours a day. This year, we have power almost 24 hours a day." He also pointed to a newly opened automobile dealership, where used cars that had once sold for nearly $100,000 now are selling for $30,000.
The pastor said he believes Thein Sein is "a good man" and that ordinary people, along with democracy advocates like Suu Kyi, trust him. The government also is loosening restrictions on tribal minorities, allowing them to celebrate their traditional festivals. "For Chin people like us," the pastor said, "that means we can hold Christian services without having to hide."
Last year a committee with representatives from five different denominations planned and held a public gospel concert in Yangon. The event took place over four nights in a sports arena, and the crowds grew to 5,000 on the last night, said the pastor. The government TV station even sent a crew to cover it.
But with the changes, persecution remains. "It is still very difficult to get a building permit for a church. Christians in the army are passed over for promotion. And the government actively promotes Buddhism," said the pastor. The government has financed a new Buddhist monastery in Chin state and paid monks to go there. "But things are definitely better than before, and we are hopeful they will continue to improve," said the pastor.
From my perspective as a foreigner, one big change is no longer having to secure a visa in advance from the Myanmar consulate: I worked through an online travel agency to obtain a visa on arrival. Access to money remains a problem, as there are no ATMs to withdraw funds from foreign banks. And to fund projects or support orphanages in Myanmar, we cannot wire funds from abroad to a local bank account but must work through a private agent who manages to get the money to our contacts inside the country.
On this visit I ventured outside Yangon for the first time, taking a domestic flight about 620 miles northwest to Kalaymyo to teach at a pastors' conference. While the international terminal of Mingaladon Airport in Yangon is clean, spacious, comfortable, and efficient, the domestic terminal is anything but. With no computers in sight, all check-ins are done by hand.
And despite the positive changes, certain areas of the country remain off-limits to foreigners or require special permits to visit, particularly states such as Chin and Kachin where tribal groups are engaged in armed conflicts with the government-and where persecution of Christians continues.
At the pastors' conference in Kalaymyo, the hotel offered free wi-fi access, and authorities have eased internet restrictions-like access to Google. About 200 pastors and local believers attended the conference. Some had walked for two days, then took bus rides of 12 to 15 hours in order to get there. Most were from the neighboring Chin State, where the population is 95 percent Christian.
Many of the pastors operate homes for abandoned children, a severe problem in Myanmar. Most children in the homes have similar stories: after one parent died, the other remarried but the new spouse did not accept the child. Usually the parents are from different tribes, so that other family members are unwilling to take in the children. Some children are orphans, others come from homes where one or both parents were incapacitated by drug use.
Expressive worship and intense prayer characterized the Kalaymyo conference. Years of struggling with poverty and injustice under a corrupt and oppressive regime have not robbed the pastors of their faith in God or their joy in serving Him. Many of the pastors take courage and hope from former dissidents like Aung San Suu Kyi, and many of the pastors at the conference were equally hopeful about the future, seeing recent changes as the beginning of God's answer to years of prayer for freedom, justice, and prosperity for Myanmar.
-Russell Board is a writer in Saitama City, Japan