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Burma in transition

Last Updated: April 2, 2012

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault recently visited Burma and found a nation beginning to break free from years of oppressive military rule. On April 1, the people of Burma took part in the first free elections in nearly half a century. Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the election marked the beginning of a new era. Use the arrows below to navigate through the slideshow of Adrienne's stories, thoughts and images.

These are the last hours of the Shwedagon pagoda festival and the first hours of full moon day.

Clearly, a lot to celebrate in Burma.

What's striking in the colour and chaos here is what's absent from these images: Police, army and faces of fear.

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Burma: flirting with freedom

CBC's Adrienne Arsenault visits Burma and finds a nation starting to break free from an oppressive military regime and take part in what will hopefully be its first free elections in nearly half a century.

In the last year much has changed. This isolated nation ruled by a firm and violent military junta for decades seems to be softening its reach towards its own people and particularly the outside world.

Famed opposition figure Aung Sun Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, is running for office in upcoming by elections and is a name that no longer must be whispered.

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Canada honours Aung San Suu Kyi

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presented the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi with honorary Canadian citizenship.

Here, you see young political supporters openly selling trinkets adorned with her image and rallying the crowds politically.

A few months ago, they would have gone to jail for that.

Further down the hot and cramped path, a small booth trying to raise awareness for political prisoners.

This would have been a wildly provocative and dangerous move a few months ago.

Now, Mr. Moe Aung, who once served 6 years of hard time as a political prisoner, dares to openly talk of this country with a foreign reporter. What a shift.

Is he afraid I asked? "Compared to the past I feel relatively safe", he says "but not completely safe."

So, there's the rub. There's the whiff of change, the enthusiasm about change but after so much hardship, believing change is here to stay will take some more convincing.

Some of the changes in Burma are so new some find themselves testing their limits a little more every single day.

What previously had to be said in whispers is now talked of out loud.

But people have long memories about rulers that jailed and brutalized the outspoken, so some worry the freedoms might be a trick. So, they take tentative steps towards freedom.

That includes those who work at the weekly, the Myanmar Times.

For years the process has been that they hand in their news pages to the censors and wait for them to come back filled with the red ink; the "get rid of this" order of the government to words, phrases, pictures and entire articles that were unflattering or still offensive.

As you can see the pages still come back covered in red ink, a no go on the phrase "political prisoners", a no to referring to Burma's poverty, a no to publishing an entire article about Aung Sun Suu Kyi's concerns that there are irregularities in the election process.

Phrases about how salary disputes are a "test" for the stability of the new civilian government are scratched out. Forget writing about corruption. Forget extensive descriptions about how farmers feel used and abused by the government.

The hypersensitive government is even suing a journal for some of what it has written recently.

But, there are a few victories and they come one comma, one picture, one sentence at a time.

Now based in Toronto, Adrienne Arsenault was previously CBC-TV's London correspondent, a position she took up in the fall of 2006 after having spent three and a half years in Jerusalem. Before that, Washington, D.C. was home for two and a half years. Adrienne has also, at times, called Vancouver and Toronto her "home base" in her various postings with the CBC. She joined the CBC in 1991 as an editorial assistant.

Over the years, and across the continents, Arsenault's assignments have included disasters, conflicts, politics, sports and basic human dramas. She has won and been nominated for several Gemini awards, was named the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's journalist of the year in 2005, picked up a Gracie award for outstanding female correspondent and a Monte Carlo festival award for her coverage of the Zimbabwe election.

Photos by Adrienne Arsenault and Lysanne Louter

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