Although Burma’s leader has pledged to hold the country’s first elections since 1990, there still seems little hope of democracy.With imagination and willpower, ordinary Burmese have managed to survive an oppressive military government that openly condemns them to poverty and isolation.

Yangon, Burma’s commercial hub and until recently its capital, is a case in point. With its boulevards lined with fading colonial buildings and streets filled with vintage automobiles, the city once known as Rangoon looks like it belongs in the previous century. But these are not the only things out of date.

Yangon’s street hawkers sell bootlegged copies of Burmese Days, Orwell’s stinging indictment of British rule, along with a wide range of international newspapers and magazines that have somehow escaped the government censors. But just as the military government has ensured the country remains several decades behind the rest of Asia, the copies tend to be several days or months old. Thanks to a thriving black market, everything from foreign currencies to Scotch whisky and the latest English and Hindi films are available. It is one of several reminders that ordinary Burmese are steadfastly connected to the outside world in every way they can.

The military junta has its international links too. “Burma could not function without Chinese support,” says one longtime Burmese activist who requested anonymity. Like Asean, the emerging superpower has generally been happy to avoid criticising its fledgling neighbour. China is busy transforming Burma into a satellite state. But China is not alone. Although Burma has been placed under a raft of international sanctions, multinationals such as Unocol and the Russian Aircraft Corporation (producers of the MiG jet fighter) are happy to do business with the junta.

Tourism is another source of foreign investment and there are few signs of the junta in cities frequented by foreigners, although state security covertly surveils the local population and tourists lest they stray off the beaten track.

In the garrison town of Kalaw, for example, one local told me of his surprise on discovering that many of the regular patrons at his favourite noodle shop were young officers at the local military college. Although they looked and dressed like every other civilian, he explained, on graduation day they all appeared in full army dress.

Despite attempts to mask the regime, it doesn’t take much to notice the vast inequality that condemns most to squalor while the generals and favoured businessmen hold court in imposing if garish mansions that line the wealthy parts of Burma’s major cities.

Since 1962 the military junta has stifled an ethnically diverse and broadly popular democracy movement popularised internationally by Aung Sung Suu Kyi, daughter of modern Burma’s founding father, Aung Sung.

When in 2007 protests against fuel price hikes transformed into a street-level pro-democracy movement, riot police fired live rounds into the largely peaceful crowds and imprisoned thousands including hundreds of leading monks.

Yet even with this history, observers were still stunned when the regime refused to allow international assistance to the millions left destitute by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Even private citizens were punished for trying to help. Zarganar, one of Burma’s most famous actors and comedians, was sentenced to 58 years jail, later reduced to 35 years, for criticising the government’s inaction in the face of the disaster. Many locals believe Zarganar’s real crime was embarrassing the generals with his philanthropy – he personally paid for humanitarian aid to be bused to cyclone-affected areas of the Burmese coast.

Many Burmese continue to risk imprisonment for similar acts of benevolence. In the remote hills of central Burma, I watched in awe as local businessmen and farmers, themselves struggling to make ends meet, quietly delivered medicines, toothbrushes and blankets to the elderly and infirm in villages far from their own homes.

People may remain cautious of speaking about the political situation, even in the most remote areas. But beneath the surface there are deep frustrations towards continued economic stagnation, cronyism and the lack of freedom.

In response to these frustrations, the junta has promised parliamentary elections later this year. But dates have yet to be set and it is unclear whether several of the largest independent political parties like Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will contest them.

Judging from past experience, however, the proposed elections are likely to be a whitewash. The junta refused to honour the NLD’s landslide election victory in 1990 and a new constitution passed in 2008 gives the military 25% of all seats in parliament regardless of any vote.

It all may be theatre, but as the nightmare continues ordinary Burmese still find ways to slip the cage.

• Andrew Ryvern is the pen-name of a journalist who recently visited Burma.