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Democratic Reform in Burma?

Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is in a whole jar of pickles right about now. The brand new civilian government is trying to set up a semblance of democratic reform, but human rights conditions in particular remain very repressive. Bad economic management and worse social injustice have been the case for decades, of course. So why is it coming to a head right now?

In November 2010, elections were held after almost fifty years of military rule. Except, well, the ruling junta announced that the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is military-backed, won eighty per cent of the votes. If that sounds just the tiniest bit suspicious, it well should. It’s a statistic that also curiously parallels the 1990 election, in which the National League for Democracy won eighty per cent of the legislative seats.

The National League for Democracy, of course, never got into power: its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had famously already been placed under the house arrest to which she would remain subject on and off for twenty-one years. Her party had been declared illegal prior to the 2010 election, but Suu Kyi had been the focus of increasingly intense international release campaigns for some time. The military regime was smart enough to realise that they had to play nice if they wanted to gain any kind of credibility in the international community, releasing her a few days after the election. Okay, said the international community, we’ll be hanging out for some democratic reforms, then.

And they’re still hanging out for it. Since 1992, prisoners have been used as military porters in the civil war. Rape and ethnic violence are endemic – much of it conducted by the military. And Suu Kyi wasn’t alone: there are still more than two thousand political prisoners in Burma. Foreign minister Wanna Maung Lwin recently told the United Nations General Assembly that releases will happen soon, at an “appropriate time”. As Mark Lyall Grant, British ambassador to the UN, commented, “We hope the near future will come very soon”.

What’s riding on the support of other nations for Burma? Well, their economic management has long been appalling, and economic sanctions are cutting into the problem further. The European Union suspended a number of sanctions in April in light of the governmental change, but, as late as last month, the United States Congress decided to extend theirs. Governments around the world have pretty much reached the same conclusion: the Burmese government is all talk and no action. The Wall Street Journal has it about right:

This strategy extracts maximum foreign aid in exchange for minimum reform. The Burmese regime knows that once sanctions are lifted they are difficult to reimpose. The tenuous progress made so far would likely crumble if sanctions were removed. In order to be effective, the lifting of sanctions has to be gradual and linked to irreversible reform progress.

A few days ago, the Burmese government abruptly halted work on the China-funded US $3.6 billion Myitsone hydropower dam project, which would have seen about ninety per cent of the power generated go to China. And they did it without informing China, which is far and away Burma’s strongest ally. Reliable electricity is not so very common in Burma as all that, not to mention the substantial environmental concerns, and Thein Sein says that the dam was “against the will of the people”. If the government wanted to send a strong signal, this is about as strong as it gets: they really want to show that they’re really for reform. Alienating your strongest ally while just about everyone else is really suspicious of you might not be the best way to go about it, but, hey, it’s a move, which was more than was generally expected.

In a similarly transparent move, Tint Swe, the head of the national press censorship department, has called for censorship to be abolished. Burma is reputed to have the most active media censorship in the world, so that would really be something. I doubt it’s going to happen any time soon, and I am pretty sure that he was put up to calling for his own job to be cut. What this tells us, however, is what all the drastic announcements from Burmese government figures are telling us: the government is really desperate to show itself in a positive light. They’re so desperate that, ironically, the international community remains very cautious.

Curiously, Suu Kyi is more positive about potential reform than almost anyone. She’s been holding talks with the president. If anything is likely to convince the international community that Burma is ready to move forward, these shows of respect to Suu Kyi, who attracts such extraordinary international respect as she does, are probably the way to go.

Well, I say anything – actual reform in Burma would be more convincing than talking about it. It remains to be seen if the Burmese government are willing to walk the walk.