Burma Comes in from the Cold

Burma is finally taking tentative steps toward reform. Washington should reward it accordingly.

Once isolated by the West, Burma, also called Myanmar, has chosen to join the rest of the world. Although Burma’s future course is not guaranteed, the country’s prospects are growing brighter. The United States should reward the government in Naypyidaw for further expanding democratic reforms.

The military first seized control in Burma in 1962.The junta varied between bizarre (long-time dictator Ne Win was guided by astrology) and brutal (suppressing democracy protests equally ruthlessly in 1988 and 2007). Callous incompetence after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 resulted in mass suffering. In eastern and northern Burma, the regime literally warred against its own people, with numerous ethnic groups seeking autonomy.

Over the years the United States withdrew its ambassador and imposed a range of economic sanctions. However, Washington only inconvenienced regime elites, who grew rich from their political connections.

The government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council and later the State Peace and Development Council, occasionally relaxed its control, only to return to repression. The regime voided the election of 1990 after the poll was won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The Nobel laureate and daughter of one of Burma’s national heroes, Suu Kyi spent fifteen of the next twenty-one years under house arrest.

In 2010, the regime remade itself but offered little hope of genuine change. Top generals retired while creating a nominally civilian government dominated by officers who shed their uniforms. The constitution preserved the military’s dominance; the parliamentary election was rigged.

Blinded by Transition

Now, everything is changing. Suu Kyi has registered to run in an upcoming parliamentary by-election and recently made her first campaign trip. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which came in second after the NLD in 1990, also has officially registered. Four amnesties over the last year have released many political prisoners. Censorship has been relaxed. Labor laws have been revised. Civic life is expanding. Ceasefires have been negotiated with several ethnic groups.

NLD deputy leader U Tin Oo said: “Everything is happening with a speed we couldn’t even foresee.” President Obama observed that “After years of darkness, we’ve seen flickers of progress.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Naypyidaw in December. European officials also have made the trek.

Burma still has far to go to become a liberal democracy, however. Some opposition activists remain skeptical. Aung Naing Oo, a Thai-based analyst, argued that “Suu Kyi’s power “will be severely limited” even if she and other NLD members are elected to parliament.

In its latest report, Human Rights Watchwarned: “Burma’s human rights situation remained dire in 2011. . . . Freedoms of expression, association, and assembly remain severely curtailed. . . . Ethnic conflict escalated in 2011.” With “abundant evidence of continuing systematic repression,” said HRW, the changes are welcome but “did not address ongoing, serious human rights violations in the country, especially abuses related to the long-running civil armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas.”

Indeed, increased liberties remain at the sufferance of the government. Moreover, fighting recently flared between the Burmese army and Kachin Independence Army along the border with China. Even Trade Minister U Soe Thane admitted: “A lot of things we have done, but many more we have to do in the near future. The democratic process is not finished yet.”

The Reformers

Leading the reform campaign is Burmese president U Thein Sein, a former prime minister. Suu Kyi said: “I believe he sincerely wants reform” and “He is a man capable of taking risks if he thinks they are worthwhile.” Sein is widely seen as honest, an unusual characteristic for the Burmese government.