In Burma, Unexpected Glimmers Of ‘Glasnost’

Burma’s new ‘civilian’ government – staffed mostly by former generals – is ushering in a wave of reforms that even some of the country’s most hardened dissidents are welcoming with cautious optimism.

Myanmar President Thein Sein, an unlikely reformer
Myanmar President Thein Sein, an unlikely reformer
Antoine Clapik

RANGOON – A perestroika wind is blowing through Rangoon these days after the formation, last spring, of a civilian government mostly made up of former generals from the cruel and corrupt military junta. The generals dissolved the former junta on March 30. Six months later there is clear evidence that a process meant to lead Burma toward "disciplined democracy" – the stated goal of the country's leaders – is taking place.

"We are currently enjoying a degree of real, political liberty. I am today more optimistic than I was several months ago," says Toe Kyaw Hlaing, who presided over the medical students union during the democratic movement of 1988. Burmese soldiers drowned that movement in blood.

Given Hlaing's background and political leanings, his comments speak volumes about the changes currently taking place. Hlaing is in regular contact with opposition leader and iconic dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who for the first time is willing to publicly express some optimism.

‘The Lady," as Suu Kyi is often referred to, still weighs her words carefully. But there is a noticeable contrast with the skepticism she had just after her release, in November 2010, following seven years of house arrest.

Suu Kyi met face-to-face with President Thein Sein last month. She told reporters later that Mr. Sein is indeed seeking "positive" changes. In a Sept. 18 interview with the AFP, however, she said there are "legitimate questions' about how far he is willing to go with the reforms.

Nothing much is known about the content of the discussions from their unexpected meeting. Either way, the tête-à-tête vividly symbolized the opening up of politics. At one point during the encounter, according to a Burmese source, the wife of the president spontaneously hugged the former opponent of the regime.

How far will the reforms go?

Most analysts question how long the government's newfound openness and transparency will last. "For now, the reformists have their hand on the State apparatus," says an anonymous source familiar with the inner circle of power. "But if the democratization process goes too far, the tough ones, the henchmen of the former dictator, Than Shwe, are ready to carry out a coup."

Relations are reportedly tense between the president and his second in command, Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo. The vice president leads a faction of ultraconservatives who are little inclined to accept much liberalization of the system.

"The president must move quickly if he wants to keep the opposing faction from regaining control," says Kin Zaw Win, a veteran human rights activist who was released in 2005 after 11 years in prison.

Zaw Win, a former dentist, presents himself as a supporter of ‘the third force." In many ways he embodies the evolution of political change in Burma. "I am neither for the government nor for Suu Lyi's National League for Democracy," he explains. "In Burma, we tend to see choices in black and white. The third force is in the gray area."

The winds of change

Historically speaking, the president's ‘liberal" faction has hardly been a champion for things like freedom of expression. Yet is it showing a commitment to reform, particularly in the field of economics. Once controlled tightly by the junta, Burma's economy is beginning to open up. "The economy," one observers notes, "is the real mechanism driving this political openness."

Who would have thought President Sein, of all people, would be the person opening Burma to the winds of change? "Not many," say foreign analysts in Rangoon, the country's economic capital. A former prime minister, Sein spent his entire career in the very military apparatus that has controlled the country for the past half-century.

No one had grand illusions that last year's general elections, which many observers say were rigged, would change much for Burma. Voters overwhelmingly elected the party in power, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Burmese law also reserves 35% of the seats in parliament for the army.

But things sped up abruptly during this year's drawn-out summer monsoon season. Press censorship has significantly been relaxed. "We now talk regularly about Aung San Suu Kyi in our columns, even if we are still submitted to censorship before publication," says Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of the English edition of the weekly The Myanmar Times

There are other signs of things opening up. On Aug. 17, President Sein announced that the country's political exiles could return home. Rumors spread of an eventual and gradual release of some 2,100 political prisoners. So far, however, nothing concrete has indicated that amnesty will take place soon.

On Aug. 18, the president began peace talks with military groups of ethnic minorities who continue to battle in the border regions. They demand the establishment of a real federation where they could operate autonomously. Without a doubt, this is where prospects are bleakest: the army continues to commit terrible atrocities against the civilian populations in these regions.

As long as these violent acts continue, Europe and the United States are unlikely to lift their economic sanctions against the government, which dreams of international legitimacy. Burma is finally opening itself to change. But it still has a long journey to take if it wants to shed its reputation as a pariah state.

Read the original article in French

Photo – Wikipedia

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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