Burma Reforms Gaining Speed

Suu Kyi photo Jan. 18Today the longstanding leader of the opposition in Burma (Myanmar), Aung San Suu Kyi, officially filed papers to run for parliament in by-elections on April 1. It is another step forward in a reform process that last week saw the United States restore diplomatic relations with Burma after the government there released 651 more political prisoners including many prominent dissidents.

In most places in the world, inertia is a strong force in international relations. If a country is at war, it stays at war; if at peace it stays at peace; if repressive it stays repressive. So real and permanent changes in a country — for example, the Arab Spring successes in Tunisia and Libya — are always of note.

Is Burma experiencing real, permanent change?  It sure looks like it. U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently visited Burma and met the new civilian president, former general Thein Sein, and other top leaders. He said afterwards, “I’m convinced he  is a genuine reformer, and more importantly, so does Aung San Suu Kyi.” U.S. politicians closely follow the advice of Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, regarding policies such as whether to lift sanctions on Burma (not yet but moving that way). Last month Hillary Clinton met with her on a historic visit to Burma that signaled U.S. and international responsiveness to Burma’s reforms.

Last week the Burmese government signed a ceasefire deal with one of the most important of many ethnic militias that have been battling the government for decades near the borders with Thailand and China. The Karen ethnic group has battled the Burmese government for 63 years since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948. The government also has ordered a ceasefire in its long conflict with the Kachin ethnic group, but some fighting continues.  Since 1989 the government has signed ceasefires with 17 armed ethnic groups. The government now says it hopes to end all these armed conflicts within three or four years.

Just ten months ago the military rulers of Burma gave way to a civilian government, albeit one hand-picked and largely led by themselves, after three decades of military rule. The government over those decades was one of the worst in the world. In 1988, student protests were met by lethal force in a massacre that previewed the following year’s Tian An Men protest in China. In 2007 Buddhist monks led large-scale demonstrations against the regime, which were also broken up with lethal force and repression.

An election in 1990 — the last until the flawed elections in 2010 — was swept by Suu Kyi’s party. Instead of allowing them to rule, the military took over, jailed opponents, and put Suu Kyi herself under house arrest for years at a time. Over the decades, the military leadership and its friends have enriched themselves greatly by exploiting Burma’s great natural resources such as timber and minerals, often sending these to its main supporter, China — which also gets electricity from Burmese hydroelectric dams. (But in September Burma cancelled an extremely unpopular $3 billion dam project backed by China. Burma had also found common ground with North Korea in recent years, reportedly buying missiles and possibly nuclear assistance from the North Koreans. Mitch McConnell said yesterday that Burma’s leaders “understand that a big part of normalizing the relationship with the United States is to discontinue its relationship with North Korea.”

The Wall Street Journal cautions that about a thousand political prisoners remain behind bars, including many associated with the country’s armed ethnic groups, and repressive laws remain in force. As for the April vote, with only about 10 percent of the parliament seats up for election, Suu Kyi’s party cannot take power even if it sweeps the vote. That would have to wait for constitutional reforms or the next regular elections in five years. The military rulers passed a new constitution in 2008 ensuring their continuing stay in power, and 2010 elections were not credible and were boycotted by the opposition.

Notwithstanding the long road still ahead, Burma’s political change in recent months has been breathtaking. Why does a country lurch toward freedom after decades of authoritarianism? Often the answer seems to be personal. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi has remained steadfast, totally committed to nonviolence, and has reached out on a personal level to the military rulers. She is Burma’s Nelson Mandela (or, you might say, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi). For his part, president Thein Sein has personally pushed the country in a new direction.

The world’s “rogue” regimes cause turbulence disproportional to their apparent size and power in the international system.  But their numbers are decreasing, with Libya now off the list and Burma seeming to be moving with determination to end its isolation. Iran (75 million people) is becoming more isolated with new sanctions hitting its economy hard and its currency losing half its value in recent weeks. , North Korea (25 million) is in an uncertain leadership transition. Syria (20 million) has a government fighting for survival against its own people. Saddam’s Iraq is a distant memory. All these countries tried, or at least started, to develop nuclear weapons.

Truly these are tough times for rogue states and their isolated elites. Add in the various dead or deposed dictators and terrorists over the past year, and the picture looks grim indeed for today’s embattled authoritarians. Burma’s president shows both wisdom and pragmatism to get off the sinking ship and start the country of 50 million people in a new direction.

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