Nearly a year ago, Burma, one of the world’s most oppressive military dictatorships, held elections that were widely regarded as a sham. Few observers figured that the new president, a former military man named Thein Sein, would be allowed or inclined to carry out substantial changes of any kind. The military, it was assumed, would continue to pull the strings. As one longtime diplomat with extensive experience in Burma told me, “I think we [outsiders] expected a few cosmetic changes from Thein Sein, but nothing that would commit the government to real reform.” She added, “I don’t think anyone expected this.”
By “this” she meant the transformation that has taken place since Thein Sein took office—a series of reforms that has shocked even the most jaded Burma-watchers. Over the past six months, the government has announced plans to release some 6,000 prisoners, launched a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and appointed one of her confidantes as an adviser to the president.
The government has also apparently removed blocks on foreign media outlets, allowing Burmese to access independent information on their country. And this month, the head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department called for censorship to be abolished, an incredible statement in a country where for years news came from organs like the buffoonish official newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, and state TV channels that showed endless clips of generals visiting infrastructure projects and receiving obsequious praise from villagers. Perhaps most strikingly, several weeks ago, the government suspended a massive China-funded hydropower dam in an ethnic minority region after rare local protests against the project, which opponents said would have led to environmental destruction and forced relocations. It was the first time Burma experts could remember the government changing its plans at least in part because of popular dissent.
BURMA HAS certainly seen its share of false dawns. After the country gained independence from Britain in 1948, it enjoyed a short-lived experiment with democracy before the military grabbed power in 1962. Following massive protests over inflation and the state of the economy during the 1980s, the military allowed a free election in 1990, which was won by Suu Kyi’s party. But then the army annulled the results. In the mid-’90s and early 2000s, the military government again appeared to usher in an era of glasnost: Suu Kyi was freed and the government launched talks with her. But, in both cases, the government cracked down after it got what it wanted from the outside world—namely, increased foreign investment, as well as membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, an important regional organization. In the bloodiest of these crackdowns, in 2003, military-linked thugs attacked a convoy carrying Suu Kyi and members of her party. Wielding metal bars and other weapons, they bludgeoned Suu Kyi’s supporters until blood splattered the road and some 80 people were dead.
Why, then, would this time be different? After all, the election hardly swept in a generation of Nelson Mandelas and Václav Havels. The military has the power to reserve 25 percent of the seats in parliament for itself, and military-backed parties took nearly all the other spots. (A small group of politicians who had split from Suu Kyi’s party also won seats.) In addition, the new constitution grants the military a kind of reserve power over any civilian government. And longtime junta leader Than Shwe, who dominated the country from 1992 until last year’s election, remains active in his retirement: According to Larry Jagan, a veteran Burma-watcher based in Bangkok, he has placed hard-line allies in the new government, who have allegedly been calling cabinet ministers into meetings and pressuring them not to enact the new president’s policies.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to believe this burst of reform is for real. True, Thein Sein was originally backed by Than Shwe. However, foreign observers who have met him say that, unlike his paranoid and often isolated predecessor, Thein Sein recognizes that decades of military rule have crippled Burma. In a speech marking his inauguration, Thein Sein admitted the country is grappling with serious poverty, and, since meeting him, Suu Kyi has reportedly told visitors that she believes he is serious about change. “The meeting [between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein] injected a sense of hope into the people of Burma and the international community,” notes Aung Zaw, editor of the exile magazine The Irrawaddy, and one of the harshest critics of the Burmese government.
Thein Sein also appears to have amassed greater power than any reform-minded leaders managed to do a decade ago and has already gone further than previous reformers ever did. By defying China and suspending the dam, for instance, he has shown average Burmese that the leadership may respond to them. And, by allowing Suu Kyi to play a bigger public role than in the past, he may have set in motion changes that will be hard to reverse. Earlier this year, for example, when Suu Kyi took what was supposed to be a private trip to the temple city of Bagan, hundreds of people gathered at a local market to see her and offer their support. This was no small thing in a country where simply massing in large numbers has often been forbidden.
Some American officials believe the recent developments in Burma were encouraged by a push for engagement by the Obama administration, which launched a review of Burma policy early on. In a cable sent by the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon and obtained by WikiLeaks, American diplomats claim that Suu Kyi has taken “advantage of the opportunity posed by the United States Government policy review” to reach out to Burma’s leaders, and that she might be basing this strategy along U.S. outlines. However, some Burmese exiles and analysts in Burma maintain that the regime is only opening up to preserve the military’s grip on power. If that’s right, then the challenge for the Obama administration will be to ensure that it does not grant too many concessions unless reforms are truly entrenched. Otherwise, what began as an unexpected chapter in Burma’s history could become a very expected one indeed.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article appeared in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.