Democratic Reform in Burma?

Much like Sarah Palin, I can see Burma (officially known as Myanmar) from my house! Though my excellent mountain view doesn't give me any particular insight into the political situation across the border, the internet does, and the story of incipient reform in Burma is one of the more interesting narratives in international politics right now, despite a relative paucity of mainstream media coverage.

This is one of the world's most closed states, with decades of military rule, thousands of political prisoners, and a history of brutal repression. Over the past year, however, and particularly over the past couple months, rumblings of change have rattled the flatware in my cupboard, and while it's still too soon to tell just how real these reforms are, there is an awful lot happening quite quickly.

Last November, in undeniably flawed and rigged elections, the junta that has ruled the country since the 1960s seemed to consolidate its power under a false banner of democracy, with the military-backed party winning an ostensible landslide. About a week later, Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from her house arrest, and over the past year has been exercising increasing freedom to travel around the country and speak publicly.

Outgoing President Than Shwe stepped aside in March after two-decades of one-man rule, and he was replaced by Thein Sein, a General in the Burmese military. Nobody is really sure whether or not Than Shwe is still pulling the strings from behind the curtain, but Thein Sein has been making real policy moves that lead even some of the regime's harshest critics to permit themselves a little optimism about the potential for real reform.

Late last month, President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the construction of a dam being built by a Chinese company. The dam had been the subject of protests within Burma, due to the environmental destruction it would cause. In cancelling the project, Thein Sein's message was loud and clear: he was ready to buck the wishes of China's government and cancel a pet project of his predecessor and fellow elites in response to the wishes of the Burmese people. Typically, China has been Burma's closest (only) ally, so as Murray Hiebert and Gregory Poling argue on the CSIS blog CogitAsia, the move against the dam deserves to be taken more seriously than any previous gestures at reform: the longer-term political and economic costs of angering China are very real.

What's more, Burma's head of censorship, Tint Swe, recently called for greater media freedom, and the government quickly made good on the promise, unblocking a number of websites, including YouTube, Voice of America, and the sites of several outlets run by exiles that specialize in criticizing the government. Very few people in the country have web access, and Tint Swe has made other, less encouraging remarks warning media outlets that they must accept the "responsibilities of freedom," but the move is a positive one, nonetheless.

Somewhat less encouraging news came earlier this month. After great anticipation following the government's announcement that they would be releasing over 6,000 prisoners in a general amnesty, including many political prisoners, most Burma-watchers were disappointed that only 220 political prisoners (out of a total of about 2,000, according to Amnesty International) were among the released. And as reported on Southeast Asia blog New Mandala, general amnesties have a long history in Burma, and shouldn't be taken as a very real sign of reform. Granted, 220 is better than nothing, but keeping 1,700 dissidents locked up isn't the mark of a democracy.

The U.S. State Department has, thus far, responded to the incipient reforms with cautious optimism, inviting Burma's Foreign Minister to the State Department-- a first since the junta took over in 1962-- and openly considering the relaxation of some sanctions and restrictions on economic assistance. This is presumably what Thein Sein is aming for-- it's hard to understand his moves toward reform without believing that he does have a real interest in ending Burma's isolation and in building an economy that isn't wholly dependent on China.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has been supportive of the reforms in Burma, and has said she believes Thein Sein is "sincere" in his desire to change Burma. Still, she won't advocate for the U.S.'s  cessation of sanctions because of, first, the continued incarceration of 1,700 political prisoners and, second, the government's continued refusal to recognize the rights of minority groups, some of which remain locked in military struggle against the government. The United States is unlikely to make real moves toward rapprochement without her nod, and so the Thein Sein government continues to court her support. (An excellent article in the Wall Street Journal this week, linked above and here, explains Ms. Suu Kyi's role in this international political drama.)

Some argue the U.S. sanctions against Burma are moot-- as ineffectual as the sanctions against Cuba, with the additional factor of China: With trade across the northern border, Burma can (in theory, anyway) circumvent most suffering the sanctions aim to impose. But with Thein Sein and the Burmese government expressing interest in ending the sanctions and a willingness to undertake political reforms to make it happen, this is a carrot the U.S. should use. The State Department should continue walking slowly, encouraging further reform by the Burmese government, but waiting to cease sanctions until more real, permanent change can be demonstrated.

The reforms have been halting, and it's hard to know how real they are. And a dramatic reversal could come to pass: a counter-revolution by unhappy hardliners in the Burmese political elite is eminently possible. But the motions over the mountains in Burma seem to have real potential, and for the sake of the Burmese people, we must hope that true change is in the cards.