New Myanmar's changes are no revolution

November 8, 2011 - 4:15 AM
Myanmar Surprising Changes

FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 19, 2011 file photo, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, left, poses with President Thein Sein before their meeting at the presidential office in Myanmar's capital of Naypyitaw. Myanmar's Nov. 7, 2010 elections seemed like just another self-serving maneuver by the country's generals to keep their thumbs on the scales of power. Then some surprising things began to happen. The new government eased censorship, legalized labor unions, suspended an unpopular, China-backed dam project and began talks with Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement. (AP Photo/File)

BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar's elections last year seemed like just another self-serving maneuver by the country's generals to keep their thumbs on the scales of power. Then some surprising things began to happen.

The new government eased censorship, legalized labor unions, suspended an unpopular, China-backed dam project and began talks with Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement.

A revolution it isn't, however.

Political prisoners still languish in jails. The military still draws accusations of routine abuse against ethnic groups. And the country's long-suffering citizens remain highly skeptical of their government, believing its reforms could be aimed at lifting Western sanctions or avoiding an Arab Spring.

"The government is never sincere, and they will backtrack any time once their wishes are fulfilled," 45-year-old lawyer Myint Thein said in Rangon.

So far, most of the optimism appears to be outside the country as it emerges from a long reliance on China, with Myanmar and the West both keen to reconcile after decades of frosty relations.

U.S. envoy Derek Mitchell told reporters in Yangon on Friday that Myanmar's new government has taken a series of positive steps and that Washington would like to support its reforms.

"We would look to respond in kind," he said.

The international community's hopes were not high after Myanmar's carefully orchestrated Nov. 7, 2010 election. As expected, the polls brought to power a proxy party for the military, which has run the country since a 1962 coup.

But that perception has changed in recent months, said Asian Studies director David Steinberg of Georgetown University.

"You have a whole set of new things happening," Steinberg said. "I don't know how far and how fast they can go on these things. But they are moving and ... they are moving in a manner that we might not have predicted."

In one of the most closely watched aspects, however, the administration has so far fallen short: Large-scale clemencies for convicts have included less than 300 of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, with many of the more prominent ones remaining behind bars.

"It is too early to know whether the government's change of tone and talk of reform is cynical window-dressing or evidence that significant change will come to the country," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

In October, labor unions were legalized, along with the right to strike.

Last week, the government amended election regulations to encourage Suu Kyi's party to re-enter the political arena, after previously barring her from politics with rules that prompted her party to boycott last year's elections.

President Thein Sein reopened a long-stalled dialogue with Suu Kyi, inviting her to the presidential mansion, where she was greeted by his wife and grandchild. The warm reception was a stark contrast to the cold loathing she reportedly received from Senior Gen. Than Shwe, head of the former ruling junta.

Suu Kyi said she found Thein Sein genuine and sincere, with a desire for reform.

Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades detained by the ruling generals, has appeared more generous in her assessment of the new government than many of the people she represents.

"It may be that she feels this is the time when she could have a longer range impact, maybe not short range, but in the long run a buildup of democratic forces," Steinberg said.

But Maung Zarni, a Myanmar exile who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics doubts Suu Kyi will be able to shake the military grip on institutional power.

"Maybe she is gambling here. But structurally the dice is in the military's favor," he said in an email interview.

Disappointment has been part of Myanmar politics since independence hero Gen. Aung San — Suu Kyi's father — was assassinated in 1947 by rivals on the eve of independence from Britain.

After a 1962 coup, Gen. Ne Win took power with a despotic socialism that plunged the vibrant economy into misery. A massive democracy uprising in 1988 was smashed by the army.

The junta that took over from Ne Win staged an election in 1990, only to refuse to hand over power when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory. Democracy activists went to prison, and the country into international isolation, with Washington leading the backlash against the junta by cutting U.S. aid and vetoing assistance from institutions such as the World Bank.

There the deadlock stood, more or less, for the next two decades.

Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, and moved in and out of house arrest. The military accepted some foreign investment in oil and gas, splurged on much-needed infrastructure and cobbled uneasy cease-fires with restive minority groups along the country's borders.

In September 2007, a fuel price hike helped trigger widespread street protests of the so-called Saffron Rebellion. Once again, the military put down the uprising with violence.

By 2010, junta moved to hold an election under a constitution of its own careful crafting, ensuring it would hold veto power in any future, nominally civilian government.

Then, Thein Sein started his tenure on March 30.

The ex-general, a former prime minister in the previous junta, gave what Steinberg described as a "remarkable self-critical" inaugural speech, mentioning "good governance, clean government and the importance of the fourth estate."

His government unblocked several banned websites, allowed Internet access for Suu Kyi and dropped its routine broadsides against foreign broadcasting stations.

In addition to wooing Suu Kyi, Thein Sein offered peace talks with the country's ethnic minority groups, who were unhappy over a plan to disarm their militias.

Most stunningly, Thein Sein's government suspended a controversial China-built hydropower dam project in northern Kachin States on Sept. 30 because it was "against the will of the people." Ethnic activists and environmentalists had denounced the dam, and Suu Kyi's party also had taken up the potentially hot issue.

The move signaled an important foreign policy shift.

Isolated by the U.S. and other Western nations, Myanmar has leaned heavily on neighboring China as its key ally, but also has been wary of its huge neighbor.

"Burma is not a client state of China, never has been; the Burmese are far too nationalistic and they fear China and they have from the very beginning, but at the same time they know they need to work with China," Steinberg said.

An opening to the United States reduces dependence on Beijing, which is also a win for Washington, he said.

The government also may hope to ensure that reforms come from the top down, rather than risk a bottom-up revolution that spirals out of control as in the Middle East over the past year, Steinberg said.

"Nearly everyone is more willing to compromise now because, after 20 years, nearly everyone knows that the Myanmar people deserve so much better than what they have," said Thant Myint-U, a historian from Myanmar and grandson of the late U.N. Secretary General U Thant.

"The question should really be why has it taken so long to take the very simple and commonsense steps that we've seen over the past few months."