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Men play Chinlon, the caneball game that is Myanmar’s national sport. (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail)

On Nov. 11, 1990, Soe Myint and some friends hijacked an airplane. The foursome brandished a laughing Buddha stuffed with soap and wire, and called it a bomb. Their operation was not flawless. Some had never been in an airplane before, and they accidentally broke into a bathroom before barging into the cockpit.

But they succeeded in diverting the Thai Airways flight, forcing the A300 jetliner and its 221 occupants to land in Calcutta instead of Rangoon.

Terror was not on their minds. What they wanted, instead, was to draw attention to Myanmar, then called Burma, a country they had fled after the military overruled an election won by the country’s icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi. The amateur hijackers freed the passengers when the Indian government let them hold a press conference. They released a handwritten statement saying they had staged the airplane drama “to make the world carefully listen to the cry of the Burmese people for democracy and human rights inside a closed and little known country.”

Soe Myint. (Htoo Tay Zar for The Globe and Mail)

For many years, that cry went unanswered, as Myanmar languished under severe military rule that shut it off from the outside world. Inside its closed borders, it was a society rotted through with informants and filled with fear. Violence racked its rural regions, and its impoverished people risked jail for sins as mild as the penning of poetry.

Then, in 2010, after winning a sham election, the country’s military-backed leadership released Ms. Suu Kyi from house arrest and, a few months later, transferred some power to a civilian government. Its leadership has since brought changes once considered impossible, including new media freedoms that stoked hope that a fundamental transformation was under way. Mr. Soe Myint joined a rush of exiles who moved back to Rangoon, bringing with him a small media empire he had built abroad. Myanmar today enjoys “more and more space” for rights and freedoms, he says.

Yet, for Myanmar’s sitting government – ruled by former generals now dressed in suits – this year represents a critical juncture, as the country seeks to shake off the darkness of past decades with the promise of elections in the fall that offer a real choice between the military-backed current administration and Ms. Suu Kyi’s pledges of a very different future. If the vote is held successfully, it will mark another major step toward a freer, wealthier, more peaceful place.

Ms. Suu Kyi says the country is on the “brink of democracy” – but it’s a precarious spot, not just for its more than 50 million people, but for other nations who see far-reaching consequences to its rehabilitation.

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(Watch: The Globe interviews Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this year)

Myanmar is among the world’s most prominent testbeds for democratic reform at a time when elected governments are struggling from Thailand to Egypt. An oddly shaped country – a diamond with a teardrop, as one writer lyrically described it – it occupies a broad river plain wedged between China and India. That gives it economic importance, but has also made it into a battleground of sorts for competing ideologies. If Myanmar can find a way past its problems and embrace fuller democratic freedoms – in particular, if Ms. Suu Kyi wins – it stands to emerge as a Southeast Asian stronghold of Western ideals. If it is unable or unwilling to move past a government heavily influenced by the military, on the other hand, it will come as another vote of confidence in a style of governance that resembles China’s.

If Myanmar offers a setting for the construction of something new, it is on shaky ground. For six decades now, civil war has brought bloodshed and, despite efforts at a ceasefire – recently completed in draft, but not yet finalized – heavily armed ethnic groups still stand to threaten peace for many years to come. The generals have released their chokehold on free expression but haven’t rewritten archaic rules that enable the jailing of those they dislike. Virulent racism has spread from a clique of nationalist monks and into the legislature, which has codified ongoing persecution of minorities in new race-based rules, further inflaming ethnic tensions.

Perhaps nothing better underlines the scale of problems facing Myanmar than the desperate attempts by the Rohingya leaving on boats to flee persecution. The flight by members of the Muslim ethnic group, which Myanmar calls interlopers and to whom it refuses citizenship, has created a regional crisis and brought international pressure for change.

The problems facing country may be rooted in its decades of isolationism and dictatorship. But as Myanmar attempts to move forward, questions of fault are fading in importance next to the burden of fixing things, which will weigh heavy on the country’s next leader.

There is some hope: A flourishing civil society and the promise of peace suggest it might be possible for Myanmar to go from Southeast Asia’s darkest corner to one of its brightest lights. But as it sits on the precipice of further change, Myanmar must also contend with the possibility that its history of violence and prejudice could also drag it to failure.

At his welding shop, Sein Win fixes fishing boats, motorcycles and cars. He is disappointed that little has changed since democracy has come to Myanmar. (Htoo Tay Zar for The Globe and Mail)

A PAST THAT LIVES ‘IN THEIR BONES’

On the banks of the Rangoon River, opposite the nation’s raucous commercial hub, the view from Sein Win’s ramshackle welding shop offers an unsettling reminder of how Myanmar’s ugly past could overtake the promise of its future.

The 56-year-old Mr. Sein Win sells bolts, nuts, screws and wires, and uses his welding torches – sparked with the flick of a cigarette lighter – to repair cars, motorbikes and fishing boats. “It’s a happy way to live,” he says, sitting sandal-footed in the shade, a sleeveless white shirt untucked over a longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong. “People break something, I fix it.”

The problems he sees outside his door, however, offer no such easy solutions.

The Globe in Myanmar

More: Nathan Vanderklippe analyzes how Myanmar, one of the fastest-growing countries on Earth, can still be perilous for businesses

As he works, a naked young boy wanders by, a stark picture of abject poverty. A new road is being poured in front of Mr. Sein Win’s shop, but it’s less a picture of hope than it might seem: its sides are foot-high concrete cliffs that would destroy the axle of any car. The government is pouring the roadway concrete, but to actually link the road with his store, Mr. Sein Win will have to pave the shoulder himself. He’s not convinced the whole project is much good, either. He points behind his shop. “They built a street over there two years ago, but now it’s totally destroyed. In other countries, roads last forever and they are maintained. Here, they focus on quantity, not quality.”

Mr. Sein Win is a rare educated man in Myanmar, where the military effort to squelch dissent was so sweeping that it shut down universities for a time. He graduated from high school and paid his way through mechanical school by fixing umbrellas, collecting scrap metal, and selling water door-to-door. His daughters have done well, too: One holds an IT diploma; the other is an engineer.

He has sought a better life, and, like most of his generation, marched in the streets during nationwide uprisings that led to an election in 1990. “Life was really hard, and I wanted changes,” he says. “It was like survival of the fittest. I was educated, but the country was so closed, and I couldn’t even earn enough money.” Little changed after 1990, and when a new round of elections was conducted in 2010, he held out little hope.

The flourish of optimism was soon quashed by the military, so thoroughly that when a new round of elections was held in 2010, Mr. Sein Win held out little hope for change. He hasn’t been disappointed. “It’s the same as it was in the past,” he says. “The only difference is that I’m getting older.”

Corruption remains rampant, a “VIP system,” as Mr. Sein Win calls it, that ensures great privilege for an elite who experience a country very different from that of the 41 per cent of children stunted from malnutrition – a statistic that is worse here even than in North Korea. Salaries have gone up with roaring economic growth, some of the highest on the planet in past years, but inflation has soared, too, and with it, the price of goods. A bag of rice costs nearly four times what it did five years ago, swallowing up income gains. Improvements to desperate conditions in schools and hospitals have been so sluggish as to be nearly imperceptible.

Mr. Sein Win knows Burma was once the most literate country in Southeast Asia, a place whose airport was a global hub and whose universities were among the best in the region. He thinks it can rise again to become “a great nation.”

But he offers a bleak outlook on the current generation’s ability to bring change that is more than skin deep. The hermetic Myanmar of the last half-century, the place where the generals sealed the airport and tortured prisoners still lives “in their bones,” Mr. Sein Win says, referring to the country’s leaders.

He offers a bleak assessment of his country: “If you want to really make change, you have to kill everyone over five years old, and start a new generation.”

Wang Jia rocks her seven-month-old baby, Xiao Tian, at the Shan Mansu monastery in Lashio, in Myamar’s northern Shan state. Refugees have gathered here to escape fighting nearby. (Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail)

A CEASEFIRE, TO THE SOUND OF GUNFIRE

On March 31, in an airy meeting room in downtown Rangoon, generals in olive uniforms stood across from rebels in thonged shoes to conclude a piece of history – and prove that change in Myanmar is possible. The landmark ceasefire text was intended to secure a peace that has eluded the country after six decades of sectarian conflict. Looking on was President Thein Sein, underscoring the importance of the document.

But even as the ink dried, shots were ringing out in Myanmar’s northern hills, where fierce fighting broke out earlier this year between the military and a local ethnic rebel group, called the Kokang.

The fighting has killed hundreds and sparked a desperate flight to safety by local villagers. In February and March alone – as the final details were being added to the ceasefire agreement – 20,000 people arrived seeking shelter at the Shan Mansu monastery in Lashio, a northern outpost 100 kilometres from the border with China.

Map: Lashio, Myanmar

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Among them was Wang Jia, who fled home with five others, including Xiao Tian, her nine-month-old son. They crammed into a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, their few possessions stuffed into bags and boxes. “All my neighbours also left,” she says, sitting on an elevated wooden plank at the monastery, surrounded by adults staring off into the distance and kids whiling away the hours on a cellphone.

Others have told her that her home has since been looted: “They stole everything nice.” She is not sure when she will ever go back.

So she waits at the monastery, which offers two meals a day. Many who come seeking shelter stay only briefly, before moving farther away. “If they go back home, there is fighting and people are dying,” says Pon Nya Nanda, the monastery’s head monk.

The grim confluence of events – the sound of guns echoing as a ceasefire deal was completed – underscored the immense challenge of securing peace in a country still ravaged, in places, by the civil war that began in 1948, and the numerous war machines that have built up around it.

The Globe in Myanmar

From the archives: Nathan Vanderklippe reports on Myanmar’s historic ceasefire in March

The fighting has been driven by a long string of disputes over territory, trade and ethnic identity – not in a continuous war, but in a series of conflagrations between different groups that, over time, have brought bloodshed to many of the country’s distant corners. The difficulty Myanmar faces in securing peace lies in the number of groups involved, the complexity of their conflicts, and the immensity of the fighting forces they have assembled.

Experts estimate that Myanmar’s military, known as the tatmadaw, is now 300,000 strong. Scattered around the country, well-equipped ethnic forces together number well over 50,000, according to a calculation by Anthony Davis, a security analyst at defence consultancy IHS-Jane who has travelled through some of Myanmar’s most isolated areas.

“If you’re a government trying to rule a country, it’s a hell of a lot. That’s the dilemma Burma is facing,” he says.

Each corner of the country holds armed groups, and “this is not some sort of ragtag bunch of folks who are back in the 1950s,” Mr. Davis says. Some “are a serious semi-conventional force,” equipped with heavy artillery, surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and 120-mm mortars capable of attacking targets kilometres away.

The path to peace is further complicated by the profit those armed groups protect: an illicit trade in jade, timber and opium that forms what Aung Naing Oo, a former rebel fighter who is now associate director of the Myanmar Peace Center, calls Myanmar’s “war economy.”

It “is big,” he says. “My estimate is somewhere around $7-billion to $10-billion (U.S.).” Ethnic groups have created parallel states, complete with taxation regimes and the delivery of health care and education. Their armies protect not only economic but cultural interests. Their resistance is, in many ways, to assimilation. “There is a strong sense of territorial control, and also control over language and culture,” said Zaceu Lian, a Canadian Burmese who has returned home to work for peace.

What they want is federalism, a deal that would provide individual states not only political control and a cut of revenue from local mines and forests, but also their own constitution. “I usually compare Burma with Canada, saying this is a country made up of eight Quebecs,” said Mr. Zaceu Lian. “Each group considers itself distinct.”

It’s complicated enough that an agreement one day is not necessarily upheld the next. Take the ceasefire, a seven-chapter document that carefully details steps toward ending fighting and seeking new political solutions. Months after the draft was finished, it has yet to be finalized and signed – and in early June, ethnic groups brought in new negotiators to once again start up talks that were supposed to be over.

Even if the deal is eventually concluded, securing compliance will be tougher still. Those most optimistic about peace acknowledge it likely remains decades away. “It would take a long time,” says Mr. Aung Naing Oo “to bring peace to Myanmar.”

But the stakes are high. And Myanmar’s future will remain clouded so long as fighting continues. “You can have all the economic reforms you want, but if the country is still at war with itself, you won’t attract investment,” says Harn Yawnghwe, who escaped Myanmar to Canada as a boy, and is now back as executive director of EBO Myanmar, which promotes democracy and peace. “If the peace process doesn’t work, who knows what will happen again.”

STOKING FEAR AGAINST ‘FOREIGNERS’ WITHIN

Dusk approaches as the final preparations are made for the monk who wants Myanmar’s Muslims gone – a man whose incendiary views stand to be as dangerous to the country as is the violence in the jungles.

“Tonight is the night – and the man giving the sermon will be Wirathu. Ashin Wirathu,” a man with a megaphone says as night falls, his voice echoing across a northern Rangoon neighbourhood as he urges donations. Most of those who come drop a few crumpled bills in donation bowls. Last year, in a measure of Ashin Wirathu’s popularity, he took in $100,000 in a country where many still live on hundreds of dollars a year.

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(Watch: Who is Ashin Wirathu?)

As the crowd swells and Ashin Wirathu approaches, the loudspeakers pump out a catchy, keyboard-heavy tune. “We may need to use our bones as a fence” to stand against those who want to destroy the nation or “insult our generation,” the song warns. Then comes the refrain: “Our country is a Buddhist nation. We must stand up for our religion – hey!”

Then Ashin Wirathu arrives. His smile lights up a room – and masks a darkness that he has worked to spread across Myanmar. He is one of the architects of a nationalist movement whose philosophy of ethnic purity holds common ground with Naziism. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he calls the Koran the “mother of terrorism” and accuses Muslim men of raping Buddhist women and forcing their conversion.

Nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu speaks to a crowd on the outskirts of Rangoon. Wirathu’s anti-Muslim messages have helped stoke anger against religious minorities in Myanmar, a mostly Buddhist nation. (Htoo Tay Zar for The Globe and Mail)

He has been the inspiration behind four race and religion bills – some already passed by the national parliament – that would require government authorization for religious conversion and would regulate interfaith marriage. Amnesty International has called the bills, which are aimed squarely at Muslim groups, “grossly discriminatory.”

Muslims are vastly outnumbered by Buddhists in Myanmar. But Ashin Wirathu compares them to “a tiger among deer. It’s dangerous.”

His teachings have helped stoke a virulent backlash against the Rohingya. Angry mobs have burned down homes and mosques, causing families to flee. At least 140,000 Rohingya are now in refugee camps, in conditions so desperate that tens of thousands have fled on boats, landing in such places as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In May, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the former special rapporteur on the human-rights situation in Myanmar, said “the Rohingya are in a process of genocide.”

Migrant crisis

Dispatch from Indonesia: Nathan Vanderklippe meets Rohingya migrants, a persecuted people in transit to nowhere

In person, Ashin Wirathu says he condones no violence. But he has long preached a venomous dislike of Muslims. The son of a truck driver, he became a monk at 14. He grew fixated on stories of Muslim men forcing their wives to step on images of the Buddha, and began such an effective nationalistic campaign that the military jailed him in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim violence.

He was released in 2010, along with other political prisoners, and today lists icons of liberty and democracy as key influences. “Democracy is the best revenge,” he says, citing Benazir Bhutto.

But Ashin Wirathu’s understanding of democracy is different from those he claims as his inspirations. He sees it as a majoritarian tool, useful in imposing the will of the many upon the few. It’s why he is already thinking beyond the four race and religion laws. He wants Myanmar to codify immigrants as second-class citizens with laws to bar foreigners – he cites Chinese and Indians – from owning land. “They should just be renters,” he says. In Myanmar, Chinese and Indian settlers date back centuries; many today speak only Burmese. But Ashin Wirathu wants the country ruled to the benefit of what he calls its sons and daughters. “The cousins should not have equal rights to the inheritance.”

His is not an outlier view. “Parts of our country are flooded by foreigners – by China, by India, even Bangladesh,” says U Htun Aung Kyaw. A member of parliament who belongs to the Arakan National Party, he sits on the legislature’s international-relations committee and has toured Canada as part of a parliamentary delegation. He says people in Myanmar fear they will be made to forfeit land that is a generational heritage to outsiders. “It is very dangerous to lose our traditions, and the rights of our indigenous people,” he says.

The anger that Ashin Wirathu inspires threatens to be as damaging to the country as the armed conflict it has long endured. “It’s a question of trying to keep the pot from boiling over,” says Mr. Harn Yawnghwe. He points to the danger of Muslim resentment providing fertile ground for recruitment by Islamic State. Anti-Chinese sentiment poses equal risks.

“If anti-Muslim sentiment boils over into anti-Chinese sentiment and there are violent clashes, the worst-case scenario is that China can’t sit back and do nothing,” he says, pointing to Russia in Crimea as a chilling precedent. Worries about just that kind of scenario were stoked when China began live-fire military exercises near the Myanmar border in early June.

“It’s not there yet. I hope it doesn’t get that far – and there are ways to resolve it,” Mr. Harn Yawnghwe says. “But the potential is there.”

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein arrives at Yangon International Airport on May 17, 2013. (Minyazar/Reuters)

MEDIA CURBS, AND LGBT ADVANCES

Hijacking an airplane, Mr. Soe Myint discovered, was easier than printing a newspaper in Rangoon.

In 2013, President Thein Sein told exiles they were welcome back, and Soe Myint decided to return. He knew that his country’s problems were far from over. But as editor-in-chief of Mizzima Media Group, he was eager to test out the new liberties that promised freedom of expression and a free press. In the process, he found himself confronting a place where openness and repression still co-exist in often uncomfortable ways.

“We had to fight our way in,” Mr. Soe Myint says. The country had no registration procedures for media companies, so Mizzima had to print its newspapers in Thailand and fly them to Rangoon. It bled money. The government at first allowed only weekly publication; it took another year to approve daily printing.

“Government didn’t make our lives easier at all,” he says. And the media freedoms are limited to newspapers and magazines: TV and radio remain under the control of authorities.

“The vision is still there,” of a free country, Mr. Soe Myint says. “But we face more and more issues.”

Among them are journalists jailed for reporting that is deemed to violate an Official Secrets Act enacted in 1923, whose list of secret – and therefore prohibited – places includes “any railway, road, way or channel, or other means of communication by land or water … or any place used for gas, water or electricity works.”

Its provisions have been used against journalists for reporting on a factory they said was used to make chemical weapons. Last year, one reporter died in custody. In March, Myanmar authorities detained a reporter for publishing a satirical image on Facebook; other reporters were assaulted while covering a student protest.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Myanmar 144th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. Regression is “quite obvious now,” says Mon Mon Myat, a journalist and organizer of human-rights film festivals.

Myanmar's media

See how Myanmar stacks up against other nations on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index

Myanmar’s information minister faults the jailed reporters themselves. Those who visited the weapons factory to gather information “made a mistake” U Ye Htut said in an interview, adding that the media in general have a “lack of awareness about the law.” Amending the law, he says, is not his responsibility, though he acknowledges that “some government officials still see the media as a threat.”

Yet, he also argues that a freer media is proof of his government’s willingness to change. “We have a better situation than most of the ASEAN countries,” he says, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “And we are moving in the right direction.”

Mr. Ye Htut also serves as the presidential spokesman, and his optimism might evoke skepticism were it not shared by so many others, including those behind a flourishing civil society. Recent years have brought vigorous new debate on politics, peacemaking and human rights.

Hla Myat has been so energized by his country’s new openness that he has barely taken a day off. “We don’t have Saturdays, we don’t have Sundays – we work 24/7,” says the man who leads Colors Rainbow, which advocates for gay rights in Myanmar. “We are really moved by the new environment in the country.”

Life isn’t perfect, and discrimination remains law: Myanmar still has a Section 377 law on its books – which criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” But the LGBT community has risen with remarkable strength, working alongside lawyers to press for changes to the law, and running workshops and film festivals – some funded by the local Canadian embassy. Whereas in other countries gay and lesbian activism has been relegated to AIDS-related health programming, Myanmar groups have also pushed for equal treatment.

“There’s more going on than than in Thailand,” says Doug Sanders, a professor emeritus of law from the University of British Columbia who now lives in Thailand and is writing a report for ASEAN countries looking at treatment of the LGBT community in 10 countries.

Or, as some observers like to put it, Myanmar has, on some fronts, gone from worst to first. Perhaps no one recognizes this potential more than those who have left, and then come back.

Nyein Chan holds a PhD in mathematical cosmology, but has returned to Myanmar to teach high school. (Htoo Tay Zar for The Globe and Mail)

‘RE-PAT’ HOPES AND STARK REALITIES

Nyein Chan holds a PhD in mathematical cosmology and is the kind of numbers whiz whom high-finance companies covet. He is British-educated, interned at investment banks, and, not long after securing his doctorate, received a job offer from Morgan Stanley in London. Starting salary: $127,000 a year.

But he turned it down and, instead, last year packed his bags for Myanmar, where he was born. He took a job as a high-school teacher at an international school in Rangoon. “Home sweet home. Home is the best,” says the 28-year-old. “I want to contribute toward this country’s development.”

Decades of repression and fighting drained Myanmar of many of its most talented people, and poverty has stripped it of proper education. For every 1,100 students who enter elementary classes, barely 100 graduate from high school, leaving the country with a major shortfall of qualified people as it seeks to modernize.

Myanmar's renewal

For Canada, Myanmar is a testing ground for democracy and diplomacy, Kim Mackrael reports

But for all the problems Myanmar faces, few things provide as much hope as the trickle of people who are returning. The “re-pats,” or repatriates, are playing increasingly prominent roles in the country’s transformation. They are senior employees at banks and airlines. They are helping to quarterback the peace process. They are running media companies.

Their return is “one very promising factor” for Myanmar’s future, says Aung Tun Thet, an economic adviser to the president. “We still have a brain drain, no doubt. We have people going to work in Malaysia or in Thailand. But we now have people coming back. This is the beginning, I think.”

Wanna Aung, 48, left Myanmar in 1989. He built a career selling vacuum cleaners around Asia for a Warren Buffett-owned company before moving to Paris and promoting Veuve Clicquot at a Champagne bar. He had an apartment on Avenue de l’Opéra and access to some of the city’s swishest parties.

It was a good life, but he could not escape the guilty feeling that he had left his desperate home country behind. So in 2009, the year after Myanmar passed a new constitution that would bring democratic reforms, he returned. He now distributes Sprinkles, a vitamin-and-minerals supplement developed by the University of Toronto – seven in 10 Myanmar children are iron-deficient. “I said, ‘For this I can stop everything I’m doing,’ ” he says. “I know this product is going to save this country.” He is now sketching plans for a domestic factory to produce Sprinkles locally, working out of an office in the back of his parents’ house, where 10 staff neatly organize tables with lists of distant rural schools.

The re-pats don’t always have an easy path home. Those who have let their citizenship lapse cannot buy land in their home country or own a house. A new law allows for permanent residency, but requires an initial application downpayment of $10,000, and annual payments of $1,000.

“I mean, come on,” says Mr. Harn Yawnghwe. He accuses the government of making it tough for exiles to return, because it fears they will oppose the regime. “They’re scared and they want to control who comes in,” he says. And it can be frustrating to come back.

Says Mr. Nyein Chan, “I feel sort of irritated, because this country was once one of the richest countries in Asia. It has the potential to go a lot further. But it’s not happening.”

Myanmar’s most celebrated re-pat is optimistic that further change is possible. Aung San Suu Kyi left Myanmar as a teen, only to return nearly three decades later in hopes of bringing about change. Today, she sees a population that still remembers, and longs to return to, the time when Myanmar was literate, wealthy and peaceful.

In those memories lies power, she says. “We have been under a military regime for about half a century, and of course that shapes our society to a certain extent,” she said in an interview. “But don’t forget that the military regime was never, never accepted by the people. So the fact that there’s a veneer that has been imposed by the military does not mean that our people’s attitudes and aspirations have been shaped by the military at all.”

Added Ms. Suu Kyi, “If the majority of the people are intent enough on bringing about change, change does come about.”

Still, she warns, as well, against trivializing the problems that Myanmar faces, or the degree to which they could derail efforts to more fully move past its days of military-imposed isolation. “Too many members of the international community just want to look at things through rose-coloured glasses,” she says. “But I keep repeating that just because you want a happy ending, it’s not going to come.”

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