This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 4 January 2016
Sixty-eight years ago today Britain’s Union Jack was lowered in Burma for the last time. Independence is a special feeling, made all the more potent in modern Myanmar by the long struggles against colonial rule and military dictatorship.
Until recently, Independence Day celebrations were tinged with sadness: Lost opportunities were the country’s post-colonial standard. Under military rule it was hard for most people to get too excited about the country’s past, present or future. Melancholy reigned.
But as the shadows of that dictatorial history continue to shrink, Independence Day is being embraced by new generations. Pride in national culture, political development and economic success is replacing the old feelings of defeat and misery.
What is most exciting about Myanmar right now is that day-to-day freedoms have never been more widespread.
For a start there is the new-found freedom to talk, to listen, to write, to read, to create and to think. There has never been a time when so many Myanmar people have been empowered to share their views and ideas. New technologies help. But they would not count for much without the dramatic change in the political climate.
In the past few years there still have been occasional arrests of journalists, activists, students and others accused of pushing the boundaries too far. One of these arrests is one too many. Yet for almost everyone else the climate of debate and discussion has freshened up to a surprising extent.
Nowadays I find that discussions with Myanmar interlocutors are much less predictable. It is easy to find people with radically differing views, all happy to share their ideas about what Myanmar needs in the next phase of its development.
These tens of millions of opinions make it impossible to find consensus.
Take the development of Yangon. Many people feel that it has already spiralled out of control, with traffic, capitalism and social ills all rampaging over what was, until a few years ago, a more sedate terrain.
The first time I hung out in Yangon it was still the sleepy backwater that is now romanticised by those who dwell on what has been lost. So much has changed so quickly. Of course, there was beauty back then, but also much deprivation, frustration, even despair. We should not forget how grim the old circumstances were.
In Yangon, as elsewhere, it is in the independence to think differently and make up your own mind that the biggest changes will continue to emerge.
Millions of Myanmar media consumers already enjoy a huge array of information options. They can devour the state-run channels and newspapers, but they can now also get their hands on private media too numerous to name, including what were previously banned publications, like The Irrawaddy and Mizzima.
Bumping up against online censorship has also rapidly become a thing of the past. Myanmar’s internet is “free” by any standard. Facebook is a recurring theme in this column for good reason. In a few short years it has completely changed the way that many Myanmar people connect and converse.
Before long these trends will be better reflected in the global assessments of civil and political rights. These assessments tend to react slowly to change and to put emphasis on particular episodes where freedoms are trampled.
It never helps when a Myanmar journalist goes to prison or when peaceful demonstrators get a hard time from the authorities. Nor has it looked good when the major political parties have sought to systematically exclude Muslims from the revitalised political process.
These situations all deserve our concern, and sometimes our sustained condemnation. Things are hardly perfect.
But the residual problems should not take our attention from the big trend toward much greater freedom of expression and more open discussion, even on sensitive topics.
This freedom is the basis on which successful societies deal with their challenges and go about the long-term practice of managing risk.
Without adequate provisions for open public debate it is all too easy for bad policies to fester, for injustices to go unchecked and for people to lose hope that the powerful will ever be held to account. There can be problems with unfettered freedom of expression but these are much less pronounced than people tend to fear.
Even the most despicable ideas are usually best aired for wider scrutiny. There is nothing quite like the sanitising process when people of goodwill and intellect have a chance to learn for themselves.
With last year’s election result still ringing in our ears there is a good chance that 2016 will become Myanmar’s best year yet. And with all the new freedoms, it should see serious debate about what the National League for Democracy can achieve.
This is the time when new space for big ideas will give Myanmar a chance to consolidate its fragile democratic apparatus. The nation’s independence will require it.
Nicholas Farrelly is director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and the co-founder of New Mandala, a website on Southeast Asian affairs that celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2016.