TIME Burma

The Last Days of the Yangon River Ferry

A ferry's story reflects Burma's tumultuous journey

On a warm Friday in mid-November, the old Yangon Ferry shuddered across the riverbank in Burma for the last time.

The next morning, commuters boarded three shining new boats donated by the government of Japan. The moan of the old engines was gone, but the orange sunlight, the weary faces, and the frenzied commerce remained the same.

Since 2011, Burma’s government has worked to shed its international pariah status. Memories are short, and foreign money is washing over one of the world’s last untapped markets.

From the ferry pier, you can see the changes coming to Burma. It’s not just new boats. Tourists follow investment dollars, and children sell faded postcards in broken snatches of at least three European languages. A rickshaw driver holds a long, semi-coherent conversation in English. “I didn’t go to school,” he says. “I learned from you.” His finger points my way, but he refers to my fanny-pack saddled forbearers. The ferry has been updated, too—it still costs ten cents for locals, but four bucks a ride for tourists.

In the video above, follow the rhythm and warmth of the historic ferry crossing in its final days.

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Jan. 7, 2015

A compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Adam Dean‘s work on opium poppy farming in the valleys of eastern Burma. The country, which used to be the world’s largest supplier of heroin until the 1980s, is experiencing a resurgence in cultivation. Conflict, corruption and poverty have driven an increasing number of farmers back to growing the plants’ opium sap, the key ingredient of the drug. The United Nations is trying to persuade them to switch their focus to other crops such as coffee, but it faces a difficult task: opium is far more profitable and an easier way for smalltime farmers to pad their incomes. Dean’s photographs offer a poignant glimpse to the boom that gives so many of Burma’s poor a hard fought livelihood, one that they know isn’t good for society but one that they aren’t eager to give up.

Adam Dean: Poppies Bloom Again in Myanmar (The New York Times)

Timothy Fadek: Rebuilding Haiti (Bloomberg Businessweek) These pictures take a different look at Haiti by showing how five years after the massive earthquake, businesses are working to rebuild the country

Muhammed Muheisen: Young Survivors of the Peshawar School Attack (TIME LightBox) Portraits and words of the students who survived

Glenna Gordon (BBC Radio 4 World at One) Gordon talks about photographing the clothes of missing Nigerian school girls.

Jane Bown obituary (The Guardian) The English photographer known for her portraits, died in December 2014 aged 89

TIME elections

These Are the Elections to Watch Around the World in 2015

From Greece to Argentina, elections could transform the international political landscape

This past year was marked by monumental elections that ushered in new political regimes in countries like the India, and Tunisia, and solidified or extended others in places like Egypt, Brazil and Japan.

The year 2015 is shaping up to be a respite from the chaos of democracy, with the electorate of some of the world’s largest countries sitting on the sidelines. But a spate of political developments has infused global importance into elections around the world and prompted two previously unexpected votes in Greece and Israel that will have major repercussions for their respective regions.

Here’s a look at what to expect:

United States

Three of the five largest cities are electing their mayors this year. In Chicago, former Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel is running for reelection in February and holds a strong lead in polls. In Houston, the biennial vote in November will select a successor to Democratic Mayor Annise Parker, who has reached her term limit. It will be a similar situation in Philadelphia, where Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter can’t run for a third term.

Meanwhile, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi are electing governors in November, including replacements for Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, both of whom have reached their term limits.

Greece

The Greek Parliament’s refusal to elect Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s choice for president earlier this week triggered snap general elections set for January 25. Opinion polls have placed the radical leftist opposition party Syriza in the lead, raising the prospect of an anti-bailout government that could move to default on its massive debt and prompt a new eurozone crisis.

Nigeria

A stumbling economy and a persistent Islamist insurgency in the north have drained some public support for President Goodluck Jonathan, in office since 2010, and the vote on Feb. 14 is expected to be close. Jonathan will go up against Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler campaigning on a platform of security and anti-corruption. But the biggest determinant of who becomes the leader of Africa’s biggest economy may fall along ethnic and regional lines: Buhari is a Muslim northerner, while Jonathan is a Christian from the south.

Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded his already tenuous centrist coalition in early December and called for early general elections set for March 17, expecting to win a new mandate for himself and a more right-leaning government. But polls show that a new left-leaning coalition could beat Netanyahu’s Likud party, though the incumbent could stay in power if he successfully forms a coalition with rightist parties.

Sudan

The April 13 election is all but likely to ensure that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Court, will extend his 25-year rule, even as violence continues between Khartoum and rebel groups in Darfur and elsewhere.

Britain

The United Kingdom is heading for what may be the closest election in a generation—and the first since a divisive vote in Scotland to remain part of the 307-year-old Union—as the Labour party seeks to unseat Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party in elections slated for early May. The rest of the European Union will be closely watching this vote, as Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2017, while Ed Milibrand, head of Labour, has rejected the idea.

Argentina

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has drawn some public support for her obstinate stance against U.S. investors and U.S. courts who are demanding Argentina repay $1.3 billion in debt plus interest. But the skirmish has scared off investors and helped put longterm economic growth largely on hold until the dispute is resolved or, as is likely, a more market friendly president takes office following elections in October. As for Fernandez, her tenure is up after reaching her two-term limit.

Canada

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has seen an uptick in support in recent days, putting it ahead of the Liberal party. But his party’s support took a hit this year and he’s far from guaranteed a win in elections in 2015, currently slated for Oct. 19. His biggest rival will likely be Justin Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party and son of long-serving Premier Pierre Trudeau.

Burkina Faso

In the wake of longtime President Blaise Compaoré’s ouster amid mass protests, the interim leadership agreed to hold new elections in November. If that plan holds, the Burkinabé people will select a government not headed by Compaoré for the first time since he seized power in 1983.

Spain

The nascent anti-establishment party Podemos has skyrocketed in popularity and is now competitive with the two stalwarts in a country still burdened by an economic crisis (unemployment stands at around 24 percent). Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the right-leaning Popular Party, is already under pressure from an empowered Catalan independence movement, and the populist movement does not augur well for him in next years elections, which must take place on or before Dec. 20. But he’s hoping that economic reforms and early indications of a recovery will boost his standing.

Myanmar

The vote in late 2015 could mark a significant step in Myanmar’s heralded-but-stumbling process of political reform, but that’s not certain. Though the elections will be the first since a semi-civilian government assumed power after half-a-century of military rule, the military is still highly influential and key constitutional reforms called for by the opposition are unlikely to pass ahead of the vote. Among them is a measure to repeal a law that prevents opposition leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running. For now, Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament and a retired general, is the front-runner.

TIME Burma

Study: Burgeoning Trade in Wild-Cat Products From Burma to China

Myanmar Last Frontier
In this undated photo taken by a trap camera and released by the Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar Program, a tiger walks in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Burma Wildlife Conservation Society Myanmar Program/AP

Clouded leopards were the most common cats surveyed for sale

Tigers and other wild cats from Burma like clouded leopards are increasingly being sold to China, according to a new study.

Researchers focused on the Burmese town of Mong La, which lies on the Chinese border, where they noticed a threefold rise in shops selling parts from endangered species over the past eight years. The findings were published in the Biological Conservation journal.

The rise “could be due to greater enforcement action in Thailand,” says report author Chris Shepherd of Traffic, an international wildlife-trade-monitoring network, reports the BBC. “But because that is yet to happen on the part of China, Mong La has seen the rise in wildlife trade.”

Burma, officially known as Myanmar, has banned the trade of tiger and leopard parts, although much of its restive border regions, including Mong La, remain the dominion of rebel groups, who profit off such illegal activities.

International outrage has done little to stymie the poaching of tigers, and there are now only around 3,000 left across the globe. The illicit trade for endangered-species parts is fueled by demand for traditional Chinese medicine, which is itself buoyed by China’s new prosperous middle class.

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Dec. 16, 2014

A compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Robin Hammond‘s portrait of Lagos, Nigeria, where the booming economy is widening the wealth gap. Lagos is the largest commercial hub in Nigeria, which hosts Africa’s largest economy, and has become one of the continent’s great success stories. But not everyone has benefitted the same way. Hammond’s excellent photographs, made on assignment for National Geographic, take us from the exclusive clubs and gated communities of the rich to the squalid shanty towns and decayed housing complexes of the poor. The juxtaposition of impoverished and prosperous in this series is both jarring and stunning.

Robin Hammond: Africa’s First City (National Geographic)

Siegfried Modola: Rites of Womanhood (Reuters) These photographs document an arranged marriage in a Kenyan Pokot community.

Tomas Munita: Preserving Historic Yangon (The New York Times) The colonial-era buildings in Myanmar’s largest city have fallen into disrepair.

Steve Schapiro: The Long Road (The New Yorker) Compelling photographs from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.

The War Over the US Government’s Unreleased Torture Pictures (Wired) Interview with photography critic David Levi Strauss.

TIME Thailand

The Two Men Charged With the Thai Backpacker Murders Face a Dubious Trial

Parents of Myanmar workers suspected of killing British tourist in Thailand, show their passports as at a monastery outside Yangon
Parents of Burmese workers suspected of killing British tourists in Thailand show their passports as at a monastery outside Rangoon on Oct. 16, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

Observers have been left aghast at a litany of procedural irregularities

The two Burmese migrant workers accused of killing a pair of British backpackers on an idyllic Thai beach appeared in court to be formality indicted Thursday. But there are growing fears that any trial will be a sham.

The two men say they were tortured into a confession and various domestic and international human rights groups have raised concerns about their interrogation.

There are serious doubts about the evidence linking Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21, with the brutal slaying of David Miller, 24, and rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, on the Thai Gulf island of Koh Tao.

The victims’ bodies were discovered bludgeoned to death near rocks on Sairee Beach on Sept. 15. A fumbling investigation initially assumed Burmese migrants were to blame, then local hoodlums, then a jilted suitor of Witheridge. Eventually, police picked up Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, who were both working on the island illegally at the time.

“[The police] can see a wider investigation is needed but they are not interested,” Nakhon Chompoochart, the lead lawyer on the defense team, tells TIME. “They are only focused on the accused.”

Thai Metropolitan Police Bureau deputy commissioner Pol Maj Gen Suwat Jaengyodsuk denied the suspects had been coerced when speaking to the Thai National Human Rights Commission on Wednesday. He had been summoned by the commission on four previous occasions but failed to appear.

Allegations of torture aside, observers have been appalled by procedural irregularities. Tourists were allowed to wander through the crime scene, the suspects were forced into a reconstruction that may prejudice their chances of a fair hearing, and there was a lack of a forensic experts to collect evidence. Foreign nationals were also immediately blamed for the crime because, a police spokesman claimed, “Thais wouldn’t do this.”

“The prosecution has said that this is an important case and must be dealt with quickly,” says Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant labor expert aiding the defense. “There’s a real fear that justice will not be served.”

Under Thai law, the 900-page police report, upon which the prosecutors will base their case, will not be disclosed to the defense team until the trial commences. Instead, the defense lawyers will be given a summary containing a list of names and addresses of witnesses as well as a cursory inventory of evidence.

According to Felicity Gerry QC, a prominent British defense lawyer specializing in high-profile sexual-assault cases, “Not to have any access until the day of trial can’t possibly be fair.”

In many other jurisdictions, including the U.S. and U.K., as soon as charges are brought the defense has access to all evidence, including witness statements, physical exhibits and expert testimony. This allows lawyers to take instructions from their clients and call their own experts to refute any testimony relied upon by the prosecution.

“Sometimes the analysis takes time,” says Gerry, citing the checking of telephone records or the disputing of forensic conclusions. “My concern would be it’s all far too rushed and unfair to the defense.”

The arrival of British police observers has not helped. A team from the U.K., including a senior homicide detective and crime scene analyst, was dispatched to Thailand early last month in order to assist in the investigation. However, they spent only two hours on Koh Tao after arriving by helicopter and did not meet with either the accused or their legal team. Their findings have still not been released.

“You’d expect the Thai police to welcome the additional assistance,” says Gerry. “My suspicion is that [the British police have] been limited regarding what they’ve been allowed to do.”

Meanwhile, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, who face a death sentence if convicted, stay cut off from their families. “They are in good spirits but really miss their parents,” says Hall, who has met with the suspects three times each week since they were arrested.

Two British families have already been devastated by the Koh Tao killings. The Thai authorities must now ensure two Burmese families don’t needlessly experience similar anguish.

TIME Photojournalism Links

Photojournalism Daily: Dec. 3, 2014

Today’s daily Photojournalism Links collection highlights Adam Dean‘s work on the booming jade industry in Myanmar, which is fueled by rampant corruption and drug use among miners. The source of the jade is Kachin State, and a large majority of workers use heroin on a regular basis. It’s illegal but tolerated, with many experts arguing it’s pushed the drug into the general population. Dean’s powerful pictures show the devastating effect that the surge of heroin use has had on the workers and serves as another tale of a poor country not benefiting from its natural riches in the way that it should. (Note: Watch the very strong 11-minute video by Jonah M. Kessel that is paired with Dean’s pictures.)


Adam Dean: Addiction and Suffering in Myanmar’s Jade Industry (The New York Times)

Alex Masi: Bhopal: Tragedy Lives On (Al Jazeera America) Compelling photographs document the legacy of this industrial disaster.

Siegried Modola: Female Circumcision Ceremony in Kenya (The Daily Beast) These photographs draw attention to the controversial practice of female genital mutilation.

Kim Haughton: In Plain Sight (TIME LightBox) Haunting pictures of the sites of child abuse.

True or false in photography (Vogue Italy) Alessia Glaviano muses on truth and photography in the digital age.

reFramed: In conversation with Matt Black (The Los Angeles Times Framework) Barbara Davidson talks to Matt Black about his work documenting California’s Central Valley.


Photojournalism Links is a compilation of the most interesting photojournalism found on the web, curated by Mikko Takkunen, Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.


TIME Burma

Inside the Kachin War Against Burma

High school and university students receive drill instructions in Laiza, which lies in a Kachin Independence Army–controlled part of Kachin state, in Burma, on Nov. 10, 2014.
High school and university students receive drill instructions in Laiza, which lies in a Kachin Independence Army–controlled part of Kachin state, in Burma, on Nov. 10, 2014. Adam Dean—Panos for TIME

Burma's rulers have promised cease-fires with various ethnic groups that have been battling the military, in some cases for decades. But in the hills of Kachin, peace is further away than ever

Morning mist hangs low on the jungle as Kachin cadets stand to sleepy attention on this November morning, clutching slabs of wood whittled into the contours of rifles. Not far away in the mountains of northern Burma, soldiers in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) face off against Burmese positions, a state of intermittent war that has prevailed since a 17-year cease-fire between the ethnic militia and the Burmese army collapsed in 2011.

The 162 cadets training at the military academy in rebel-held Laiza are hardly a fighting force — they are high school and college kids undergoing their first guerrilla training. Still, the KIA, which controls chunks of land near the Burmese border with China, needs all the recruits it can get.

“The Burmese want to steal all our land, but they will never succeed,” says Hkawng Lum, a student from Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital that is under Burmese army control. The 19-year-old has been training at the military academy for one month and will eventually return behind enemy lines to serve in the KIA reserve. “Every Kachin,” he says, “will fight to the death.”

On Nov. 19, a heavy artillery attack by the Burmese army overwhelmed another KIA training camp in Laiza, killing 23 officers in training — a body blow to ethnic rebels who have been forced to manufacture their own knockoff rifles and land mines. The assault, which killed cadets from several ethnic groups, came as the KIA and the Burmese army had been holding fitful peace talks, even as skirmishes had proliferated across the state.

“We knew that the Burmese army was full of tricks,” says a Kachin Independence Organization information officer. “The peace process is dead.”

The United Nationalities Federal Council, which represents a diversity of Burma’s many ethnic groups, said that the shelling had “caused a tremendous obstacle in building trust.” The Nov. 19 attack came just days after Burma had hosted an international summit attended by national leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama. On his second visit to the country in two years, Obama warned that Burma’s much lauded reforms were by “no means complete or irreversible.”

Since Burma’s military junta began a transition to a quasi-civilian government three years ago, its rulers have promised an imminent national cease-fire with various ethnic armed groups that have been battling the Burmese military practically since the nation gained independence from the British in 1948. National reconciliation is seen as key in helping the nation’s economy develop but the ethnic militias are wary of giving up autonomy to the centralized Burmese state. Some truces have been struck, although not with the 10,000-strong KIA. Even in areas technically under armistice, continuing clashes undercut talk of peace. It escapes no one’s notice that some of the worst fighting is occurring in regions that boast some of Burma’s most-plentiful natural resources.

“When the Burmese army talks about a cease-fire, they mean stopping shooting for a short while,” says Manam Tu Shan, a 67-year-old Kachin church deacon in Laiza. “But what we mean by a cease-fire is living peacefully and being able to practice our traditions without the Burmese interfering.”

Although Burma is dominated by the Bamar, or Burman, ethnic group, some 40% of the country’s population is composed of dozens of ethnic minorities — the Kachin, the Karen, the Shan, the Wa, the Chin, the Mon and the Rakhine, among many others. When the country, now known officially as Myanmar, gained independence, it did so as a federal union in which several ethnic groups were given the option to secede if they were unhappy with their new state.

But an army coup in 1962 ushered in nearly half a century of brutal military rule. Most generals were Bamar chauvinists who won their stripes by battling various ethnic militias in the eastern and northern fringes of the country. Some of that strife, which displaced millions of ethnic villagers and subjected them to institutionalized rape and forced labor by Burmese soldiers, has been described as the longest-running civil war on earth. The current Burmese government has also been criticized for its treatment of more than a million Muslim Rohingya, a largely stateless group that lives in western Burma. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in pogroms over the past couple years and 140,000 have been sequestered in ghetto-like camps.

Bleakness and Bounty
The KIA headquarters in Laiza feels like a Wild West town, but with none of the romance of that description. Until the turn of this century, Laiza was little more than a dusty border outpost with China. But as the Burmese army pressed in, the KIA stronghold took on outsize importance. Laiza is now a collection of cement-block buildings with stores selling Chinese plastic goods, pirated DVDs and the latest in army-camouflage fashion. Heroin and methamphetamines are a scourge, as is human trafficking across the border with China.

If the town is bleak, the hills surrounding Laiza, and spreading across Kachin, are some of the most bountiful on earth. There is jade, gold, timber and hydropower. Banana plantations dot the landscape, as does the odd golf course, a relic of colonial sportsmanship enjoyed by the KIA top brass. There are also more than 100,000 Kachin who have fled the fighting to live in remote refugee camps. To survive, some villagers pan for gold for Chinese-owned companies, their pay meager even by the standards of one of Asia’s poorest nations.

While the Bamar are Buddhist, the Kachin, like several major ethnic groups in Burma, practice Christianity. There are no pagodas in Laiza, just as there are no churches in Naypyidaw, the bunkered Burmese capital that the generals unveiled in 2005. Although the Kachin are proud of their martial prowess — Kachin soldiers fought alongside the Allies in northern Burma during World War II and were known to string the teeth of their enemies around their necks — they have been excluded from the Burmese Defense Services Academy (DSA), which trains the nation’s next generation of military elite. (Before the army takeover in 1962, one headmaster of the DSA was Kachin.) These days, the highest-ranking Kachin in the Burmese army is a mere captain.

Laiza itself is deeply militarized, with some men carrying geriatric rifles that look like they did their best work during World War II. Most of the bullets are Chinese imports, and they are precious. At the Laiza military academy, Major Kyaw Htwi admits that live-ammunition training is too expensive for common practice. Some of the machine guns on hand are held together with duct tape. But the major has taught Kachin cadets for 21 years and is confident of his charges’ ability to adapt to jungle warfare.

“The Burmese want the ethnics to become extinct,” he says, as a soldier pulls a Kachin flag up a flagpole and salutes the dusty pennant. “But we will never give up our struggle.”

Days later came the Burmese army attack. There is no peace now in the hills of Kachin.

TIME Burma

Burma Counts Down to Elections But Democracy Remains a Distant Dream

Adam Dean's photos capture a still impoverished Burma as it stumbles through democratic transition, and ethnic strife, one year before landmark polls

In late October or early November next year Burma will go to the polls. However, the nation, officially now known as Myanmar, remains a long way from realizing true democracy.

Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 years under house arrest since returning to her homeland in 1988, was elected to parliament in April 2012, but remains constitutionally barred from becoming president.

In shunning the pro-democracy icon, Burma’s indomitable military demonstrates that it continues to influence all aspects of life.

The easing of Western economic sanctions has seen Burma’s long-cloistered economy pried open — cellphones and ATMs are now commonplace — but reform has largely been confined to sectors that benefit the generals and their cronies.

In ethnic border regions, rebel groups continue to battle the Burmese Army for greater autonomy, despite a raft of peace deals. Human rights abuses continue unabated; some advocacy groups say they have even increased.

In Burma’s western Rakhine State, the much-maligned Rohingya Muslim minority faces strict curbs on marriage, movement, population growth and education. Over 100,000 of this wretched community fester in squalid ghettos following pogroms by radical Buddhists. Access to food and healthcare is severely limited.

For them, as will the 60% of Burma’s 53 million population who continue to struggle in dire poverty, reforms have so far promised much but delivered little. For the past two years, photographer Adam Dean has been documenting Burma’s stumbling transition.

TIME Burma

If Obama Only Talks About One Thing in Burma It Must Be the Rohingya

MYANMAR-ASEAN-DIPLOMACY-US
Burmese President Thein Sein, right, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama after the latter arrived at the Myanmar International Convention Center in the national capital Naypyidaw on Nov. 12, 2014 Christpohe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images

TIME Writer-Reporter focusing on Southeast Asia.

The country's future may depend on it

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in November 2012, he found it abuzz with promise. Sanctions had been eased, political prisoners released and Rangoon hotels were teeming with foreign executives eager to harness the nation’s abundant natural resources, cheap workforce and enviable location between regional titans India and China.

So giddy was the postdictatorship atmosphere that Obama planted an agonizingly inappropriate kiss on Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Not that any of the traditionally conservative Burmese minded, however, because the democracy icon was finally free after 15 years of house arrest and relishing life as an elected lawmaker.

But on Wednesday, Obama returned to a very different Burma. Economic liberalization has proved woefully inadequate and human-rights abuses continue unabated. Journalists must once again muzzle their criticism or face persecution. The military continues its assaults on ethnic rebels and, as Suu Kyi said last week, the democratic transition is “stalling.”

“Progress has not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition began four years ago,” Obama told the Irrawaddy magazine before his arrival in Naypyidaw for the East Asia Summit, a meeting of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members plus other world powers including China, Russia, India and the U.S. “In some areas there has been a slowdown in reforms, and even some steps backward.”

Visitors to Burma may find this surprising. Rangoon is a cacophony of building work, and the battered death-trap taxis of yore have been replaced by Japanese and South Korean imports. Illicit money changers have been swapped for ATMs. Cellphone SIM cards are no longer restricted or prohibitively expensive, meaning the once ubiquitous phone kiosks, where ordinary Burmese queued up to pay for a few minutes’ use of a fixed-line handset, lie largely idle — an anachronism for tourist snaps.

Yet this progress is a mere facade. “Aung San Suu Kyi may say that reform has stalled, but the reality is that it has regressed,” says Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of civil-society organizations. Like many longtime democracy activists, she still complains of “surveillance, scrutiny, threats and intimidation.”

Burma is unusual amongst authoritarian states embarking on reform, in that the same figures who ran the previous military dictatorship remain in charge today, and so practically all changes have benefited this coterie. Foreign direct investment, for example, has been confined to the extractive industries that are the purview of tycoons with military connections.

“The changes put in place by the [President] Thein Sein administration are not, for the most part, liberal market reforms, but simply expanded permissions and concessions, often given to the crony firms that dominate parts of the economy,” says Sean Turnell, a professor and expert on Burmese economics at Australia’s Macquarie University. In fact, he adds, “protectionist and antireform sentiment is building.”

Certainly, there is no significant economic legislation pending. Foreign banks have been allowed to set up shop, but can only work with other foreigners, using foreign currency and cannot offer retail services. This means the industry remains plagued by crippling inefficiencies.

Meanwhile, some 70% of Burma’s 53 million population toil in agriculture, where there have likewise not been any meaningful reforms. Poverty, exploitation and land grabs are rife. “The economic circumstances of Myanmar’s majority rural population are now marginally worse than before the reforms were launched,” says Turnell.

The media is once again manacled. The death of noted journalist Aung Kyaw Naing in military custody last month has been the nadir of a year that has also seen 10 reporters jailed. “Obama’s got to see it as another indication of sharply deteriorating press freedoms,” says David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. In fact, of the 11 reformist pledges Thein Sein made to Obama back during his last visit, says Mathieson, “only about half of them have been met.”

Political reform is also backsliding. Suu Kyi will most likely romp home in next year’s national polls, provided they are as unfettered as the by-election that saw her enter the national legislature amid a landslide for her National League for Democracy party in April 2012. However, she remains constitutionally barred from the nation’s highest office. Negotiations to amend these restrictions — owing to her marriage to a Briton and sons who are foreign nationals — have broken down. Asked what the response would be should Obama try to press the issue, a Burmese government spokesman deemed constitutional reform “an internal affair.”

But it is the plight of the locally despised Rohingya Muslim population that is most pressing (not even the 69-year-old Suu Kyi has the moral fortitude to speak up for them). More than 100,000 of this wretched community fester in squalid displacement camps following attacks by radical Buddhists. They suffer restrictions on movement, marriage and education and thousands are planning to flee during the current “sailing season” on rickety boats to perceived safe havens like Malaysia, as thousands have before them. Many die every day.

However, analysts believe there is a political element to this humanitarian catastrophe. Resentment toward Muslims is a relatively recent phenomenon, with sporadic attacks on Muslim communities punctuating the past three years. Some say the unrest is being inculcated and encouraged in order to give the military continued justification for its wide-ranging powers. Government complicity in recent sectarian clashes has been alleged by the U.N. and Human Rights Watch (though furiously denied by Naypyidaw). And the tactic has been used before: anti-Muslim violence also curiously erupted amid the 1988 pro-democracy rallies.

Discontent is also brewing over myriad issues domestically: garment workers strike over pay and conditions; victims of land grabs are descending on the capital; activists protest Chinese-owned mines; farmers rally against dams that ravage the environment. But sectarian violence, or the threat of it, would be the trump card that would allow the army to suspend reforms. Military spending has already increased in absolute terms during Thein Sein’s time in office. Now there are rumors that army chief Min Aung Hlaing is maneuvering for a run at the presidency. If so, there will be precious little hope for reforming the military, which is the single greatest impediment to tackling Burma’s abysmal human-rights record.

The Rohingya crisis is a gift to Burmese generals hoping to shore up their positions and the military’s, and for that reason the Rohingya lie at the core of the Burma’s economic and political transition. Obama “is dealing with a time bomb,” says Khin Ohmar. “He may face resentment for saying something about the Rohingya, but he has to.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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