One year ago today, Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s former military regime orchestrated a general election that all objective observers agreed was neither free nor fair. Ironically, this sham election and Than Shwe’s concurrent efforts to protect himself and maintain the military’s grip on power created an environment where the small steps toward reform that are taking place today became possible.
The real question is where the country goes from here, because the true test of the sincerity of President Thein Sein and his fellow “reformers” will be whether they institute more meaningful and irreversible reforms that put real political and economic power into the hands of the Burmese people, where it belongs.
But in order to understand the direction that Burma might possibly head in the coming year and beyond—and how that direction might be influenced to ensure that it is a positive one—it is helpful to quickly review where the country currently stands and how it got here.
The November 2010 election was shunned by Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and was widely condemned as a farce. The 2008 Constitution handed the military 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and the election was rigged in almost every conceivable way to make certain that the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would dominate the open seats.
In the end, the USDP “won” more than 80 percent of the seats it competed for, and together with the military it placed ex-general and ex-regime prime minister Thein Sein, who was Than Shwe’s hand-picked candidate, in the post of president.
When the smoke from the election had settled and the new government was entirely formed, only Than Shwe and his second in command, Gen Maung Aye, had officially stepped aside—all of the other junta leaders remained in direct positions of power, be it wearing civilian or military garb. For example, the current president, first vice-president, and speakers of both the upper and lower house of Parliament were all leading members of the former regime, as were most members of Thein Sein’s cabinet.
So when Thein Sein gave a series of speeches after being sworn in that signaled the adoption of a reform agenda which included an anti-poverty and anti-corruption campaign, along with a “good governance” agenda, most observers were understandably skeptical and wondered whether any real action would follow the president’s words—after all, the Burmese opposition had heard these words many times before, and nothing had ever happened.
But then some small but positive things did begin to happen. Certain press restrictions were eased, Martyr’s Day and International Day of Democracy ceremonies were allowed, Internet website bans were lifted and Suu Kyi met with a government liaison. These steps were followed by even more significant moves, when Suu Kyi met face-to-face with Thein Sein, the president suspended work on the Myitsone Dam project and a small number of political prisoners were released. More intangibly, but still very importantly, people in Rangoon and some other major cities began to feel less fear about speaking more openly about politics.
The international community has praised these reforms while urging the government leaders to take more meaningful and concrete steps. Several Western government representatives have visited Burma recently, including the US special representative for Burma, Derek Mitchell, who said that his talks with government leaders were constructive, candid and frank.
According to his latest press briefing, Mitchell has been able to raise important issues that the regime in the past had been reluctant at best to discuss, including armed conflicts in the ethnic region and the plight of the conflict’s victims. But Burma’s current leaders need to demonstrate the political will to solve the decades old ethnic conflict and to make a long-lasting peace underpinned by political solutions, rather than putting band-aids on the deep-seated tensions with temporary ceasefires.
Outside of Burma, the US has remained a leading player in shaping Burma policy and actively advocating for change, and high-ranking US officials, including Mitchell, have now held several rounds of talks with Burmese government representatives in Washington and Naypyidaw. The US has maintained its sanctions, but has said that it is ready to “respond in kind” if Burma makes genuine democratic reforms and halts human rights abuses.
Inside of Burma, Suu Kyi—who in the past has been a strident critic of the regime, was personally barred from contesting in the 2010 election and who advised the NLD not to contest—has said she believes that Thein Sein is straightforward and sincere and has sent generally positive signals since their face-to-face meeting.