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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Hope for Change in Myanmar

Mar. 31, 2016

For the first time in more than 50 years, the people of Myanmar aren't living under a military or military-led government.

A new civilian-led government was sworn on Wednesday.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has asked her fellow cabinet members to put together an action plan for the government's first 100 days. She holds 4 key posts, including foreign minister.

President Htin Kyaw has submitted a bill to parliament proposing that Aung San Suu Kyi be named to the new position of state advisor. Observers say that would give her more power in the government.

The new leadership doesn't have the luxury of spending time contemplating how to carry out the new duties. In fact, the expectations of the people are very high and the government is under enormous pressure to deliver.

The front page of one local newspaper features a cartoon depicting people related to the former government running away from the capital, Naypyidaw, carrying all what they accumulated during their rule.

Another newspaper talks about the future of the country, saying that the new government has a lot of new challenges.

I hope the government will improve the educational environment for the sake of our children," one resident says.

The people of Myanmar have long hoped and struggled for democracy. That has finally happened.

Myanmar is still one of the poorest countries in Asia. But the standard of living has been improving since the shift from military rule to democracy began in 2011.

Foreign investment has also increased. The people of the country hope both democracy and the economy will continue to develop.

In mid-March, ahead of Myanmar's change of government, female high school students from Japan visited the parliament. They wanted to learn how the country's democratization is progressing, and had a chance to speak with newly elected female lawmakers.

"What do you think the most important issue to change the condition of the average Burmese in your country?" one of the students asked.

"There are so many challenges to improve our democracy. That is, I think, as for me, I think it is corruption is main issue in our country," a lawmaker replied.

In Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, the living standard has begun to improve since the end of the military government.

The average monthly income for middle class families is about $500 to $1,300. But this is only about 10% of the country's population. It's estimated the number of these families will double by 2020, and continue growing.

Ko Than Htut 's family is considered middle class with a monthly income of $600. They run a family business selling wholesale celebratory gift items at a local market. Product orders have increased in the past few years, making them busier than ever.

Their living standards have improved, and they now have daily necessities. But they still can't save enough money to afford appliances.

When the new government starts up, the number and variety of jobs is expected to increase.

Ko Than Htut's daughter Shoon Lei Honey hopes to become a certified care worker. Eventually, she wants to attend university while continuing to work.

"I believe if we have sufficient education we can live with pride. Freedom to do what you want to do is true democracy," the 17-year-old says.

"I want my daughter to become successful in a field that interests her. The country is not a full democracy yet. But when that happens, I believe there will be a lot of opportunities," Ko Than Htut says.

But 40 percent of the country lives in poverty. They have not benefited from the economic development. Their conditions have worsened as the cost of living continues to soar. More families cannot survive on day labor wages or even earnings from working abroad.

"The expensive rent in the city forced us to move to the slums a few years ago," says Ko Aung Soe. "I'm a type of day laborer, working as a taxi driver. I can barely pay my rent."

With a growing wealth disparity, the challenge for Myanmar will be how they go about rebuilding their society. The country is only half way to fully realizing democratization.

Min Ko Naing was one of the students who led demonstrations against the military government in 1988. He was imprisoned 3 times for his political activities and was finally released in 2012. Co-anchor Sho Beppu sat down with him to ask about the challenges facing the new administration.

Beppu: You've been fighting for democracy for many years. And now your country has a new government. How big an achievement is this?

Min Ko Naing: Many people have sacrificed their lives for Myanmar. And we've achieved a result that is worthy of their sacrifice. But the country still has a long way to go. The civilian government has to prove it can make the country better, protect democracy and human rights, and run the federal union well.

We need to be able to explain to the military how working with us will benefit them. We also have to tell them about the negative impact if they fail to cooperate and don't move toward democracy.

Beppu: Among many challenges that you say new government is facing, what do you think about the challenge to face the over expectations from the public?

Min Ko Naing: The people of Myanmar need to work with the government to get this broken country back on its feet. To help it rise from the ashes, their involvement is a must. The government has to communicate clearly with the public.

The government also needs to build friendly ties with countries around the world to ensure their support. We should also try to persuade ethnic minorities and the military to work with us.

Beppu: During your struggle for democracy, weren't any moments that you thought that you have to take arms, you have to fight a military struggle? Instead of that, why did you continue to pursue this in a peaceful manner?

Min Ko Naing: I chose non-violence so that many people could take part in the struggle. I believe various methods helped bring us to where we are today. People in Myanmar stood up to power in a peaceful way. That's the key. And we should continue on this path.

We don't like living like slaves. We want to be our own masters. We'd rather be masters, even if things aren't perfect, than rich slaves. That's why we chose democracy -- a system where ordinary people are the main players.

Beppu: How important do you think is this so called democratic culture that has to spread in a society?

Min Ko Naing: Myanmar has to strengthen its institutions. The military was the only institution that was allowed to exist. But other institutions have now emerged. They should be made stronger.

Respecting the will of the majority is the most important thing. If the country learns how to do that, we'll be able to start moving forward. All eyes are on Myanmar. So we must be a good role model.

The change in government is the climax of a struggle for democracy that's lasted decades. But, as NHK World’s Soichiro Tanizawa reports, Myanmar has just begun to come to terms with one of the negative legacies of the military regime: the ongoing issue of political prisoners and oppression against activists.

San Lwin is worried about his 20-year-old son, Nan Lin. After 6 months on the run, the fugitive student activist was arrested and detained. He now faces 3 separate trials.

Nan Lin's supposed crime was to hold a demonstration without approval.

"In the government, in the parliament, the military is everywhere," he says in a video recording at a demonstration. "We want a true constitution for the people."

Nan Lin was among a group that protested last June against the military's seats in parliament, calling for a constitutional amendment.

"My son and other student activists didn’t carry weapons or revolt. The government is trying to get back at them. It has no sincerity," San Lwin says.

More than 1,000 political detainees were released after the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein took office in 2011.

But arrests and charges against others continued, and there was a police crackdown against student protestors last year.

An NGO keeping count of political detainees says more than 400 political activists are awaiting trial and another 100 are incarcerated.

"Arrest is continues and the number of prisoners are increasing day after day. It means the reform process is set back," says Bo Kyi, joint secretary with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma. "I feel the political prisoners are hostage by the army. That is what I am seeing now."

The outgoing government viewed the detainees not as political prisoners but criminals who committed sedition. In a press release last year, it praised a "new era" of free speech. It said “no one is arrested or charged for simply exercising their rights peacefully.”

A lawyer for the student leaders said the authorities were using unusual tactics against activists.

Some received multiple charges, or even retroactive ones. One student leader is facing more than 80 charges in total.

"Activists have received the same charges from many different townships. I think the government is trying to harass them as a type of revenge," said Robert Sann Aung, a lawyer at Hygienic Legal Clinic. "Human rights in Myanmar are still weak. So we need to keep fighting against the authorities."

One analyst says the new NLD government won't be able to change the situation quickly because its hands are tied. The police force is under the Home Affairs Minister, who is appointed directly by the military's commander-in-chief.

"They use the word 'security' then they can do anything and everything," says Khin Zaw Win, director of the Tampadipa Institute. "There's call for the new government to release all those political prisoners, and to end the era of repression."

Meanwhile, Nan Lin faces an uncertain future. The father and son met recently for the first time in weeks.

"We are charged under dictatorial laws aimed at cracking down on democracy activists," Nan Lin says. "We don’t trust this legal system, so we will boycott the trials."

Myanmar’s political climate is changing rapidly. But as hundreds of political detainees are still facing jail time, those close to them are waiting to find out whether the new government's launch will alter their fate.

Beppu: The transition to democracy obviously means a lot for the people of Myanmar. But I also think it has huge significance for the international community.

The leaders of some countries seem to believe as long as they deliver economic growth, people should just shut up and do what they're told.

There are signs that democracy is in crisis in countries that proudly consider themselves to be advanced.

Look at the extreme nationalistic remarks by some European politicians that show how little they know about the world outside their borders.

Look at those irresponsible and inflammatory remarks made by some US presidential hopefuls that underline how difficult it is for people to adhere to normal political discourse.

I remember strongly in my interview that activist Min Ko Naing told me that Myanmar should serve as a model for democracy.

Its leaders have an important mission to fulfill.