The sounds of furious renovation work are emerging from our neighbour Myanmar. I have had my ear to the wall for the past year thanks to the Yangon-based Eleven Media Group, a Nation partner.
Companies from around the world are jumping on the bandwagon, looking for business opportunities in a country dubbed the globe’s final frontier. At big Yangon supermarkets, it’s now easy to find Coca-Cola, Heineken and snacks from Thailand.
Freed from tight censorship, journalists are starting to ask tough questions of authorities. One concerns the government’s contracts with broadcasters, chiefly Sky Net.
Another milestone on the road to openness was reached last week when the government held a press conference following reports of a massacre of stateless Muslim Rohingya – known locally as Bengalis. The outside world remained unconvinced with the official denial, but the press conference was an indication of progress made by the Thein Sein government. Nobody would have expected such a public rebuttal from the previous junta regime, which cared little for what the rest of the world thought.
The new spirit of openness has also brought more international flights to Yangon and other big cities. However, foreign officials can still expect an escort if they venture to certain places beyond Yangon.
The pressure for more reforms is growing, and the hottest topic is constitutional amendments and the 2015 election. It now looks certain that Aung San Suu Kyi – who spent years under house arrest as an enemy of the junta – will be allowed to run for president.
But the biggest change of all would be a fair election. A guarantee of this has been delivered by Shwe Mann, chairperson of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, but it came with a caution that could just as well apply to Thailand:
“Fighting among the parties could destroy national unity. Political parties are formed by citizens of the country. They are not enemies. Such an attitude, to regard them as enemies and to eliminate them, will not lead to national reconciliation. It could damage national solidarity. If this happens, Myanmar will never develop.”
Myanmar has made dramatic changes in the past two years. With growing investment and assistance from the outside world, its people are practically guaranteed of a better future.
Thailand has changed too, but mainly in political terms. Never before has such a large group of Thai protesters been mobilised against the government. Never before have we been gripped by violence for such a long period without an end in sight. Never before have Thais been so divided.
People in Myanmar are looking towards a brighter future. Another 10,000 villages will get access to electricity this year, while a democratic election is in sight. In contrast, Thais are anxiously waiting to see where their political division will lead them.
On the eve of Sunday’s election, I got chatting to a middle-aged woman outside Bangkok’s Klong Sam Wa district office. She was there with a bunch of people lighting candles in a protest against violence and for the election. But, spooked by the clash at Lak Si, she was no longer sure she would vote.
Her fears were deep-seated: “Nowadays, I can’t even wear red on Sundays. I don’t know why I’m so worried. I guess I don’t want to stir up bad feelings.”
My tweet about the candlelit vigils met with a brutal response: “Go light candles in Lak Si” retorted one fellow Twitter user. This came following a shoot-out that injured at least seven, including one man who was shot in the throat and likely paralysed merely for exercising his right to vote. The lack of compassion for a fellow Thai was staggering.
It reminded me of the vicious war in Bosnia Herzegovina, sparked by religious tensions, and of the power struggles in Sudan that led to much suffering and the birth of a new country, South Sudan. Civil war has also seen millions of Syrians flee their country for refugee camps, while Sunday night witnessed a lethal bomb in Pakistan that demonstrated how little compassion some have for their countrymen.
Will such a day come for Thailand? Will we be led into the senseless killing of others, just because of differences of political belief? Will this bring the day when the country is divided into two parts – North and South? Our map would change. Thailand would no longer be the symbolic “golden axe” that its shape now inspires.
If you think all this is far too pessimistic, consider the shooting at the Thai-Japanese Bridge near Chamchuri Square on Sunday night. Ordinary civilians’ lives are now in danger.
For years, Myanmar’s minorities had been totally ignored by the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group. Now, Premier Thein Sein says their demands for constitutional change must be considered.
As Thailand falls into the dark times witnessed by Myanmar in past decades, it seems our our neighbour is leaping towards a brighter future.