For decades, they have been two of the world’s most reclusive nations: Myanmar, run by a cabal of generals, squelched any attempt at democratic change and kept the country’s most popular figure under strict house arrest for years.
North Korea, run by the same family as a Stalinist dictatorship since the 1940s, simply sealed itself off. Outsiders were rarely allowed to visit, tourists were long unknown and the only way ordinary people could escape the country’s extreme poverty and political repression was to steal across the border into China.
However, in very different ways, the two nations have opened themselves up over the past year or so, allowing the world to peer behind the political curtains they had so laboriously erected.
Both now have foreign journalists arriving in unprecedented numbers (though the visits are tightly restricted in North Korea). Both have had observers predicting momentous changes. Both governments have insisted — repeatedly — that they are working to improve the lives of their citizens.
So how much change has there been? That is more complicated.
The question is debated relentlessly in Myanmar, asked by everyone from wealthy businessmen with military connections to pro-democracy political activists. Though skeptics abound, “hope” has become the country’s political watchword.
However, for observers of North Korea, the answer is far more definitive, and far less optimistic.
“None,” said Andrei Lankov, an academic on the North at Seoul’s Kookmin University, when asked if he had seen signs of significant change since the December death of long-time ruler Kim Jong-il and the rise to power of his young son. In his opinion: “The young dictator is still controlled and surrounded by the old guard, the same people who for many years formulated and executed his father’s polices, so it is too early to expect any noticeable change.”
Less than two years ago, though, similar talk was common in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, when a November 2010 national election was widely dismissed as a political sham stage-managed by the generals. Only in recent months has that pessimism begun to lift.
“We are now seeing some changes we didn’t expect,” said Yin Sein, a 59-year old high-school teacher in Yangon.
First, hundreds of political prisoners were freed — more than 650 in the past year. Then, in April, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in historic by-elections. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner who had spent more than 15 years under house arrest, now sits in the Burmese parliament.
Today, little feels repressive about Myanmar. Unlike Pyongyang, a funereal town that basically shuts down at nightfall, Yangon has long been a city of neighborhood bars, sprawling markets and storefront restaurants with plastic tables on the sidewalk.
Now, with the end of military rule, even protests have come into the open, as people test their new-found freedoms.
Every night this past week, 100 people or so have gathered at the Sule Pagoda, a major Buddhist shrine in central Yangon, to vent their anger about the rolling electrical blackouts that plague the city. Hundreds more come simply to watch.
Two years ago, such a protest almost certainly would have been met with tear gas, baton-wielding policemen and trips to jail. Today, the police watch calmly from a distance, and after a few hours they politely ask everyone to leave.