A little more than a week from now, Burma will mark the first anniversary of its first election in more than two decades. Even now, it is far from clear that this is an event worth commemorating. While the election itself was a mockery of the democratic process, there have been growing hopes over the past year that it may have set the stage for more substantive change. But one year on, we are still waiting to see if these hopes will ultimately prove to be as false as the results of last year's election.
Internationally, many doubts remain about whether Burma is really on the road to reform. Today, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa arrived in the country on a long-delayed fact-finding mission to determine whether it is ready to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2014. His findings could result in a decision by Asean as early as next month.
The United States has been even more careful about rushing to judgment. Derek Mitchell, the US State Department's special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, said following his visit to the country earlier this week that the freeing of some 200 political prisoners on Oct 12 was a welcome move, but added that the government needs to do much more to prove that it is serious about making a genuine transition to democracy.
Ironically, perhaps the most optimistic assessment of the current situation in Burma has come from the staunchest critic of military rule in the country, Aung San Suu Kyi. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, she compared her latest talks with Naypyidaw as being “where South Africa was in 1990” in its negotiations to end apartheid. She also had warm words for President Thein Sein, who she called “an honest, open kind of person” with a “sincere” desire to overhaul the country.
But even this is not enough to allay concerns that the country's progress has been far too slow, and could go into reverse at any time. The government has been unaccountably reluctant to release some of Burma's most prominent imprisoned dissidents, including the key leaders of the 88 Generation students group such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Min Zaya; ethnic leaders such as Khun Htun Oo; and Ashin Gambira, the monk who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Even more disturbing, Burma's army has stepped up its offensives against ethnic minorities, offering piecemeal peace talks with individual ethnic armed groups, but so far refusing to accede to demands for more comprehensive negotiations aimed at achieving national reconciliation.
Of course, the pressure is not only on the government. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) must also make some important decisions in the near future, as Burma's Parliament moves to amend the Political Party Registration law, paving the way for the NLD to reenter the political fray.
But what the people of Burma and the world really want to see is incontrovertible evidence that the government is sincere about loosening its grip on power and is finally ready to get serious about talking to both the democratic opposition and ethnic leaders. And they aren't going to wait forever: Something has to materialize soon, or this year's cautious optimism will quickly give way to renewed frustration.