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Latest update : 2012-01-23

A Burmese spring

After half a century of military dictatorship, there are signs of growing democratic openness in Burma. After freeing Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, the regime has now released political prisoners and opened a dialogue with separatist guerrillas. Our reporters travelled across the country to find out why one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world is suddenly opening up.

I had not been back to Burma for 12 years. I was banned from entering the country after being arrested and expelled. I had not imagined that one day I would see the streets of Rangoon again, not to mention witness this incredible freedom of speech or these photos of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy icon. Once forbidden, such photos are now openly shown.

So what happened? Why are these merciless dictators, who have been ruling the country with an iron fist for half a century, suddenly giving the impression they are throwing in the towel?

To try to understand, I went to Naypyidaw, the new capital, where the country’s masters - generals converted into democrats – are holed up.

What I discovered was a ghost town of 80 square kilometres dug out in the middle of the jungle. It is a surreal showcase of a Burma dreamed up by old despots; a sort of tropical Pyongyang.

Indeed, the mirage stops at the gates of Naypyidaw. In the neighbouring village, the people are feeding on rats found by the roadside?

By moving deeper into the country, I rediscovered the Burma I know, with checkpoints, soldiers, and villages without electricity. In the Karen state in the country’s far east, the former rebels are dreaming of the millions of dollars they could make from smuggling, thanks to a fragile peace deal just signed with the government.

Business for peace, this is the Burmese version of democracy.

“Of course we wondered if the situation here might not degenerate like in Libya or in Syria”, a high-ranking military official close to the government told me later, explaining why the junta had decided to go from outright terror to a “flourishing and disciplined” democracy.

So that is the answer. There is only one goal: to remain in power.

By Catherine NORRIS-TRENT , Cyril PAYEN , Régis DESCONCLOIS

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