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Burma - The Road To Mandalay [Part 1/2]

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Published on Mar 24, 2012

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has long been closed off to the scrutiny of the outside world.

You've always been able to travel there as a tourist, albeit with restrictions, but with the leading opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the past couple of decades, and her calls for tourists to boycott Burma, relatively few made the journey.

It was certainly off the menu for journalists and camera crews. The only way in for them was to pose as a tourist and use a small camera. Asking ordinary Burmese about their real feelings was just too dangerous for most, as it could lead to imprisonment for those speaking out.

For years the place has been ruled by a corrupt military junta that brutally suppressed all opposition, used forced labour and imprisoned thousands for their political views. Their main ally and investor has been neighbouring China, which has an eye on Burma's many resources, including oil, gas, timber, gemstones and minerals.

But recently -- and suddenly -- things have changed. After elections that most observers regarded as a total sham, the new government made a series of surprise announcements. It released Aung San Suu Kyi, suspended a hugely unpopular dam project with China, freed thousands of prisoners and signed peace pacts with a number of warring ethnic groups. Even Hillary Clinton dropped in for a visit, hot on the heels of diplomats from countries all over the western world who are hoping they might be able to lift economic sanctions.

For a country that's been under military dictatorship for the past 50 years, it's heady stuff, and no-one really knows what to make of it all.

The ABC's Zoe Daniel has been covering it all, with growing amazement and excitement. Now finally, she and her cameraman David Leland, have been given an official visa and relative freedom to take a trip through Burma, filming openly and talking to the people.

It doesn't go entirely to plan, and it's clear that pronouncements from on high about journalistic freedoms don't necessarily filter down to officials on the ground -- but it's certainly a start.

From the shabby but atmospheric old colonial capital of Rangoon (now Yangon), to the bizarre new North Korean-style capital Naypyitaw, the breathtaking ancient temple town of Bagan and the throbbing commercial hub of Mandalay -- Daniel and her crew roam far and wide.

On the way they meet ordinary folk, and score a remarkably frank interview with a Presidential advisor. He fesses up to the sins of the past, and insists that Burma is now heading in a new direction. It's hard to judge the truth of that, but at the very least, we can now go there and see for ourselves.

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