To end a year charged with change, Myanmar enjoyed yet another first: a public countdown to the New Year.
Such gatherings were heavily restricted under the military government that once ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma. But as the country emerges from totalitarian rule, gradually embracing reforms until recently unthinkable, Myanmar celebrated the new year as never before.
“This is very exciting. … We feel like we are in a different world,” university student Yu Thawda told the Associated Press at the Monday countdown. An estimated 90,000 people packed a Yangon field, the news agency reported, dancing and reveling under a bloom of fireworks.
The countdown was only the second time that Myanmar has hosted a public entertainment event, Irrawaddy magazine reported, just a few weeks after pop star Jason Mraz played in Yangon. Though youths used to gather at Inya Lake to mark the new year, brawls led the military government to ban the gatherings, the magazine said.
It was a fitting end to a year packed with firsts for Myanmar. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, long confined to her home as a political prisoner, was elected to the parliament. After the United States restored relations with the long-isolated country in January, President Obama paid a visit, the first by a U.S. president, in November.
President Thein Sein held his first news conference for local reporters this year, and journalists no longer have to send their articles to government censors before they go to print. Hundreds of prisoners got their first taste of freedom.
Human rights groups have cautioned, however, that Myanmar still must achieve many more firsts before it is a fully free nation. Farmers and others protesting against the seizure of land for a copper mine were beaten and jailed, spurring international outcry. Government forces were accused of killings and rape as ethnic violence ravaged western Myanmar this year.
Monday night, though, the country had a chance to celebrate the change it had seen so far. Amid the revelry, 27-year-old Sithu told Agence France-Presse, “I came here to have fun and leave disappointment behind.”