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  • Coming to Myanmar is for me a profoundly personal journey into my own family history,

  • My father was born here, and carved out a successful career as a doctor until the military siezed control in 1962

  • Targeted by the state for being an Indian national, he was forced to abandon his home and flee overseas

  • As part of a mass exodus of an estimated 300,000 ethnic Indians.

  • Modern day Myanmar is still racked by ethnic divisions, but life here is transforming.

  • One of the biggest changes is in free speech.

  • Tonight a live comedy show is being broadcast to the nation to mark international peace day.

  • The organiser is Zarganer. Myanmar's most famous comedian, and a former political prisoner.

  • Zarganar, what does tonight symbolise?

  • We can say this is the first time in the history of our country that everybody

  • can watch and every comedian can speak their jokes freely. There is no censor, no ban.

  • Over the 35 numbers of the Ministers will come to here, and sit there and they can listen

  • how they criticise them, the comedians.

  • Former Major General Aung Min is a Government Minister and a key peace negotiator. He is

  • taking up Zarganar's invitation to hear the comedians barbs first hand. But the opening

  • act begins with an unexpectedly serious message.

  • I'd like to criticise the military offensives. We really....we really pity the suffering

  • of the victims, our fellow citizens. Please stop the military offensives. Please be united,

  • our fellow ethnic nationalities.

  • The jokes that follow take aim at the Government's economic mismanagement, the soaring price

  • of living and widespread corruption.

  • In hell, the electricity meter is stuffed down the officials' throatsEven though

  • they happily chew on them!

  • They are very happy even though they are in hell!

  • The humour may seem mild but this is a country

  • where until recently comedians had to submit their gags to Government censors. Tonight

  • even the Minister is laughing along.

  • What have you witnessed as far as the pace of change in Myanmar?

  • Things have definitely quickened up immensely. It wasn't so long ago that people were riding

  • around with push bikes.

  • Few Australians are watching the transition to democracy as avidly as Ross Dunkley, the

  • country's only foreign media magnate.

  • People are enjoying their first taste of democracy in half a century.

  • He arrived here 13 years ago, building a unique and sometimes testy relationship with the

  • generals to set up the nation's first independent weekly newspaper.

  • A lot of people were critical about the 'Myanmar Times', that we were lackeys of the

  • Junta that we were prostitutes. We were just on the ground engaging with the military dictatorship.

  • We were of the view that it's better to be on the field and playing than off the field

  • and screaming. Like some hysterical housewife. Every week we were attempting to lift the

  • bar just a little bit higher.

  • While newspaper readership is collapsing elsewhere in the world, in Myanmar business is booming.

  • It was only in April this year that the Government ended a state monopoly on the daily press.

  • For the previous five decades it had been more interested in censoring, jailing or torturing

  • journalists deemed critical of the State.

  • You know, here in Myanmar it's a booming media scene and with the relaxation of censorship

  • in the last six months we've had 13 dailies open up.

  • That's incredible - 13 dailies in six months.

  • Here is a selection of the dailies, 'The Voice', 'The Yangon Times', 'The Seven Day

  • Daily'. The freedom of speech for me has got to be at the forefront of any change. Unless

  • you can have a free and open media, how can you claim to have any sort of democracy? For

  • me that's the baseline.

  • Whose land is it in Mikyaung Kan?

  • Our landOur land!

  • Does the land belong to the military?

  • No, no.

  • This protest is about one of the most contentious issues in the new Myanmar. Land grabbed by

  • the former military rulers. Just a few years ago, a gathering like this would never have

  • been tolerated by the authorities. These people have been fighting for more than 20 years

  • to regain their land in south-east Yangon.

  • The army forced all of us to move out at gunpoint. Some fearful people moved out but some didn't.

  • The army bulldozed the land and sent them to Insein Prison.

  • A 1,000 families lost their homes. It's the

  • kind of injustice we hear again and again.

  • We dared not speak up in the pastNow we dare to because we have been given the right.

  • We think the president and the government will consider our demand favourablySo

  • we are demanding very bravely.

  • Under old laws still in place, demonstrators can face hefty jail sentences simply for protesting

  • without permission. In this case, the authorities had agreed but protestors were being closely

  • watched. Around the corner, we found four truckloads of police ready to react to any

  • trouble.

  • May the whole country be peaceful! May Burma be peaceful!

  • We are here because we need peaceAlso because of the 2008 constitution we have so

  • many problem and we have so many conflict in our country.

  • For activists like this Generation Wave leader Ko Moe Thway, political change isn't much

  • easier. Last year he led a peace rally without getting permission. He and eight other organisers

  • now face up to 20 years in prison and a gruelling trial process that's more like a full-time

  • job.

  • How many times have you been to court?

  • I think more than once at a time we have been in the court 130 times.

  • 130 times, wowHow do you view this particular Government?

  • I would say that the country has changed than before but the thing is, we need to wait

  • and watch carefully where this change is leading to. So we cannot say everything will be good.

  • One of the key milestones of Myanmar's reforms

  • has been the release of hundreds of political prisoners. But many remain behind bars, with

  • new arrests and trials still being reported every month. I've come to see Than Maw, a

  • woman who knows only too well how those viewed as troublemakers are treated. Her husband

  • Ko Htin Kyaw is a veteran political campaigner.

  • I am really proud of him.  I couldn't have done it.

  • How does it make you feel when you look at

  • pictures of your husband?

  • Only a few politicians can nurture that kind of political commitmentSo I am proud

  • of him, not just as a husband, but as a good citizen of the country.

  • We don't want crony-ocracy!!!

  • We don't want it!!

  • At a protest three months ago he planned to make a citizens arrest on a businessman he

  • accused of land grabbing but he ended up in custody himself, charged with insulting the

  • state, he faces two years in jail.

  • The government must solve the problems the people are facing, if the government ignores

  • the suffering of the people we cannot call it a democratic governmentIt is a crony-ocracy

  • government that protects the cronies.

  • Than Maw is three months pregnant and is faced with bringing up her baby alone.

  • Despite them saying the country is changing,

  • we cannot say we see any noticeable changesIn the past anyone who called for democracy

  • was jailedNow the government itself calls for democracy, but it's just rhetoric. I think

  • that this government is about 10 percent better than the last government.

  • Talky, Shell and Bobo are former political

  • prisoners, between them they have spent 30 years in jail. Faced with the difficulties

  • you have life on the outside, they set up Golden Harp, a taxi company with a difference.

  • Hi, can I hop in? Thanks.

  • There's a deep stigma attached to being a political prisoner in today's Myanmar. It's

  • hard to find employment or to be accepted by society.

  • The main objective of Golden harp is to help

  • and support the former political prisoners as much as we can.

  • Golden Harp provides valuable stability for

  • former prisoners. It also gives drivers like Shell a chance to educate their mainly foreign

  • passengers.

  • We share our Burmese politics with them and we highlight the abuses and wrongdoings of

  • the previous government with constructive criticism.

  • We are on our way to a place well-known to employees of Golden Harp, Yangon's sprawling

  • Insein prison. Notorious for the mental and physical torture inflicted on its inmates.

  • The most difficult time for me was being alone in prison without a visitor for more than

  • a year. I was not allowed to talk to anyone and I was starvingWe tried to endure in

  • the prisonsSome people went mad. Some people have stayed mad. Some people have lost

  • their speech. Once some of our friends were released from prison, they died soon afterwards

  • because of what they'd suffered. I feel really sad about that.

  • Have you ever asked Shell to stop being involved

  • in politics?

  • Sometimes I will like him to stop, but he doesn't want to stop, but he does not want

  • to stop.

  • Shell's wife Lwin Mar says like everybody in Myanmar, all they want is a life free from

  • oppression. But even now that the couple are worried that Shell could be arrested at any

  • time.

  • Even nowadays I worry for his health, because he was mentally or physically tortured for

  • nearly 14 years.

  • Do you still see evidence of all of that time that Shell spent in prison?

  • Sometimes he doesn't want to stay alone in the home because he thought he will be captured,

  • so he will always try and go out if I'm not at home.

  • oh my goodness!

  • Because he was locked in the isolated for

  • many many years - this is our life we cannot stop it.

  • It's the younger generation lapping up new

  • freedoms and pushing boundaries. None more so than the Me N Ma girls. Modelled on Britain's

  • Spice Girls they are the country's first all girl group, and today they have invited me

  • to their Yangon studio to watch a rehearsal for their latest single.

  • I am strong # Got to stand tall # This

  • is my world # Nothing is going to shake it.

  • We girls stand for like everybody who are sad, down and who feel unhappy about their

  • life. Because now everything is changing and it starts to change right now.

  • # I'm stronger now # So it's goodbye.

  • The Me N Ma Girls are out to smash the stereotype that the women in Myanmar are timid and modest.

  • Breaking the mould has its challenging even for a pop band. In the past the girls have

  • had their lyrics and their fashions censored by the State.

  • So these days do you feel like you are allowed to sing about whatever you want?

  • We can sing whatever we want but we have to

  • sing within the boundaries. We know how far we can go so we are in the boundaries but

  • we are still pushing the boundaries.

  • The girls have been working hard for years to cut through the conservatism of their country.

  • Now with growing freedoms, these talented young women see a bright future.

  • What do you think about the direction of this

  • country right now?

  • I believe our President and he is going really well, and also we support our President to

  • get good democracy. I do believe and I want to believe that this will last forever. We

  • just want to go forward, that's all we need to do and all we want to do.

  • With its exposure to the world Myanmar is

  • attracting plenty of attention. The country has thrown its doors open to visitors. In

  • the last year, the number of tourists has doubled and investors are flocking. So how

  • does Myanmar's Government rate its progress? I've come to one of the capital emptiest cities

  • to find out. Naypyidaw was born in 2005, when parliament was built on a Greenfield site

  • 300km north of Yangon. Here, farmers live in the shadow of Myanmar's most powerful people

  • and constant reminders of military rule.

  • If there's a symbol of the bad old days it's this, a 20-lane Highway running past Parliament

  • that rarely sees more than a handful of cars, the sort of waste of the former military Government

  • everybody hopes is consigned to the past as Myanmar travels its own road to democracy.

  • U Ye Htut is the Information Minister and spokesman for the President.

  • U Ye Htut, thank you very much for speaking

  • to us today. First of all, where are we on the path to democracy in this country?

  • So now we are entering the second 2.5 years

  • of our transition to democracy. So if we look back at those past 2.5 years we made a lot

  • of achievements. But now we also have a lot of challenges.

  • Let's talk about the issue of political

  • prisoners. How many are there in jail right now in Myanmar?

  • I cannot tell that in exact number.

  • Around about?

  • I think just maybe 200 or 300.

  • It does seem entirely contradictory to the notion of democracy though that there would

  • be any political prisoners in jail right now?

  • The President promised that at the end of this year there will be no more political

  • prisoners in our country.

  • And yet people who are protesting on political grounds are still finding themselves in prison

  • for violating Article 18....

  • Yes.

  • ....which is about not getting permission to protest. That seems to me and to many others

  • I'm sure watching this, nowhere near a serious enough issue to go to jail for, not even for

  • a day.

  • Yeah but that's a law. So that now that law was approved by the Parliament. Now

  • the Parliament is trying to review that particular article, Article 18.

  • It wasn't that long ago that somebody would

  • be jailed for criticising the administration. How does it feel now to be on the side where

  • you are being criticised?

  • In the first years we are not very used to that kind of criticism. So sometimes some

  • of the Government officials are angry about that criticism. But the President said you

  • have to face this kind of criticism and what you have to do is to present the truth and

  • to present the transparency of the government - the best thing to deal with the media.

  • How do you want the world to see Myanmar?

  • I want the world to see that Myanmar as you know, the country and the people who

  • are trying their best to achieve their democratic goal. Sometimes we lack the experience. So

  • we want the international community to see we are struggling to achieve our goal and

  • try instead of blaming us, to please give your helping hand to us.

  • Elections in 2015 will do much to test the

  • Government's appetite for change and the eyes of the world are watching. Today former US

  • President Jimmy Carter is paying a visit after a series of meetings to check on democracy's

  • progress. In the middle of the journalistic throng, veteran newspaper journalist and political

  • prisoner, Thiha Saw.

  • Man up the front?

  • Thank you Mr President. Are we moving? Are we moving in the right direction, in the

  • right place?

  • I think the entire world has been pleasantly surprised at the degree of progress that has

  • already been made in just a brief 2.5 years since the last election. But a lot of change

  • still needs to be made here.

  • The magnitude of what this country still faces is daunting. Ethnic conflicts are ongoing,

  • hundreds of laws have to be rewritten and the constitution that bars Aung San Suu Kyi

  • from ever becoming President needs to be overhauled. Thiha Sau says the people of Myanmar must

  • be patient.

  • As far as Myanmar's path to democracy, where are we at this present moment in time?

  • We still have a long way to go and then

  • we are not really sure that we could reach there and then that may take three years,

  • maybe 20 years, we don't know. Hopefully we have taken the first few steps