Long wait for change in Burma's villages

By Jason Burke

Drive out through Rangoon's bumpy streets - past the pagodas and the decaying colonial architecture, past the new shopping malls, past the tenements where families live nine to a tiny flat - and cross the old bridge over the Bago River. Beyond the margins of the city, in a country beyond the margins of the international community, is the village of Zigon.

Zigon is better off than many villages in a country where the average annual income is £650 ($1250).

But when, during the first visit of a British foreign secretary for 56 years, William Hague flew from the new capital of Naypyidaw down to Rangoon, he would have passed over thousands of settlements like it.

Naypyidaw, with its 12-lane highways and monumental architecture, has been carved out of scrub and farmland as a monument to the power of the autocratic and secretive military clique that has ruled Burma for decades - a power that appears to be waning, or at least evolving.

Hague's visit would have been unthinkable even 18 months ago. "The aim of my visit is to reinforce change in this country," he said last week.

But if there has been talk this week of democracy in Burma and the tentative reforms being implemented by the Government since an election in November 2010, there has been less interest in the rural areas, where 70 per cent of the population live.

The focus has been on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning campaigner who was released from decades of house arrest only 14 months ago, and her largely urban-based National League for Democracy (NLD).

Nay Zinn Latt, the Burmese President's political adviser, described a bright new democratic and capitalist future for Burma. "If we want capitalism, we need a free market - and that means we need some freedoms that we didn't have before. So now is the time for change."

He did not mention the villages.

It is true that the 1000 or so inhabitants of Zigon - a strip of largely wooden homes built on a narrow spit of land at the confluence of two rivers - have much to worry about apart from politics. Council head O Win Thei lists the problems faced by villagers: their wooden homes barely keep out monsoon rains; there are no proper sewers; mosquitoes bring deaths from dengue fever every year; the public school is overcrowded and the monastery school has no places; and it is only because of a donation from the Singaporean government that the village has a clean water supply.

"It's tough here. Sometimes when we have a bit of money we eat chicken or even beef, but usually it's vegetables only. If I can get fish from the river then we'll have that, but even the fish are rare these days," says Moe Moe Win, 46.

Zigon does, however, have electricity - unlike 90 per cent of Burmese villages - installed by the Government last year.

Most of the villagers participated in the last election in November 2010. Neither free nor fair, according to international observers, and boycotted by the NLD, the polls resulted in a huge majority for the ruling clique's political vehicle, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

There are two major questions in Burma: is there a genuine desire to "democratise" on the part of a regime which in 2007 used live ammunition against demonstrating monks and responded to Cyclone Nargis a year later with a cynical disregard for human suffering?

Hague believes the Burmese President, Thein Sein, is "sincere", though he stresses pressure from the international community must be maintained.

"There has been no real change yet. We must be cautious. Any transition will take much more time," said one recently released political prisoner.

The villagers of Zigon have a different timescale in mind. Their land is disappearing at the rate of 9m a year because of erosion of the river banks.

Another few years and Zigon will disappear. Observer

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