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Why Obama's visit to Myanmar is a good call

David HoffmanThe Christian Science Monitor

President Obama’s upcoming trip to Myanmar (Burma) on Nov. 19 is being greeted by a chorus of skeptics as naïve, premature, a reward for a ruthless dictator, and worse. They are wrong.

In truth, Myanmar, under President Thein Sein, is embarking on one of the most rapid and radical democratic transformations of any country in modern history. Once skeptical, I returned from Myanmar this week stunned by the breadth of democratic changes happening across the political, media, and economic landscape. President Obama’s advisers have rightly judged that a top-down democratic revolution is underway in a country known for its brutal crackdown on nonviolent protests by its revered Buddhist monks just five years ago.

In February 2008, the ruling junta put forth a new constitution that offered limited civilian rule. Few took it seriously. But there began to be hints that the military junta was prepared to take real steps toward democratic reform. In 2010, the junta freed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, from 15 years of house arrest and released hundreds of other political prisoners.

At the end of March 2011, a former general, Thein Sein, was sworn in as Myanmar’s first non-interim civilian president in almost 50 years. The right to unionize was legalized in principle and opposition political parties were allowed to compete in elections. Currency reform was introduced and the parliament passed a remarkably liberal direct foreign investment law. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi declared that the country was “on the verge of a breakthrough to democracy.”

The question on most Burmese minds now is whether these democratic reforms are real and irreversible. There are encouraging signs as the governing party broke ranks recently and joined with the opposition to impeach the justices of the Constitutional Court, a united front of all the civilian parties. It was a stunning loss for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi secretly rushed to see President Thein to assure him this was not the first step in a revolt whose next act would be to impeach him.

A litmus test of democratic reforms will be the regime’s commitment to a free and open media. For decades, information from inside Myanmar came from journalists operating underground who smuggled their tapes and stories to the international media. Most people inside Myanmar lived in total information darkness. Then in August, the government stunned journalists with an announcement that it was putting an end to press censorship. Cautiously at first, journalists began to test the limits of official tolerance, but are apparently finding no resistance. The information ministry even asked a newly formed independent press council to draft the country’s new media law.

I asked Ahr Mahn, the 30-year-old executive editor of 7 Day News, the largest independent news weekly in the country, what the new limits were. “There are no red lines,” he said.

Two weeks ago Mr. Ahr Mahn asked President Thein the opening question at Myanmar’s first-ever presidential news conference. “Do you plan to tell parliament how much you are spending on the Kachin conflict?” he asked. The question, relating to an ethnic separatist conflict in northern Myanmar, would have been unthinkable in the past. The press conference was broadcast on Up To Date, Myanmar’s first independent television news channel.

Still, the limits of Myanmar’s new-found media freedoms have yet to be strenuously tested for an extended period. There will be plenty of opportunity in the near future, as the thornier aspects of peacemaking, constitutional changes, and the promise of a new media law take center stage. The media must be allowed to cover these in full and to represent all ethnic voices in the process.

For now, the reforms and the apparent end of censorship have unleashed a veritable media gold rush in Myanmar. In the coming months, the government will license the country’s first daily newspapers. Independent television and radio stations will follow. The government needs to ensure that the regulatory process is simple and transparent so that media ownership does not concentrate in the hands of a few crony businessmen.

The price of a mobile phone SIM card has dropped from $3,000 to $200. In a country with fewer cell phones than North Korea, telecom liberalization will lower the cost even further and bring Internet connectivity to the 98 percent without it. A population that has lived with no independent news media of any kind will now have access to information and will have a voice – the foundations of a civil society.

Mr. Obama should push to continue this wave of democratic reforms by highlighting the urgent need for free and open media to reach all parts of the country, particularly vast swaths where people have no access to newspapers, radio, or television in their own languages.

Many who have suffered under Myanmar’s ugly dictatorship remain skeptical about the ultimate outcome of the reforms, but there is also a growing respect for the new president and the political risk he has taken to come this far. Many people I spoke to from across the political spectrum believe he represents Myanmar’s best hope of lifting the country out of its long nightmare. One prominent critic of the former military regime described what she had seen when she accompanied the families of the first political prisoners to be released. As their loved ones walked free, the families raised their fists in the air and shouted, “Long live the president.”

David Hoffman is the founder and CEO of Internews, which has been training Burmese and ethnic minority journalists in Myanmar and in exile since 2001.