There are few national anniversaries in Burma more significant than the one it commemorated on Sunday. It was on this day 65 years ago that Burmese independence leader Aung San and his Shan, Chin and Kachin counterparts signed the Panglong Agreement, which served as the basis for the creation of a federal Union of Burma.
But Union Day is not just one of Burma's most important occasions—it is also one of its most bizarre.
After all, a military coup that ended parliamentary rule just 15 years later also effectively nullified this historic agreement. Fifty years after taking power, the military continues to impose its own narrow notions of “unity” on the country's many ethnic minorities.
However, the fact that Burma still marks Union Day on Feb. 12 is some cause for hope. It shows that Aung San’s vision of a federal union, which he did not live to see, remains the most viable alternative for a country that desperately needs to heal its internal divisions. Half a century of unity at gunpoint, which has left the country weak and vulnerable to exploitation by its far more powerful neighbors, has only served to underline the need to return to sounder principles.
Amid all the talk of “reforms” since last year, countless voices have chimed in about what Burma really needs in order to move forward. Generally, the West has called for free and fair elections and an end to ethnic conflict, while the rest of Asia has stressed the need for economic development through foreign investment.
While these are indeed essential to creating a peaceful and prosperous country, they will have little positive impact if one other key ingredient is missing: trust.
Trust will be the single most important factor in determining whether Burma is ready, at long last, to realize its true potential as a nation. Without it, even the progress that we have seen since last year would have been unthinkable. If opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi hadn't decided that she could trust President Thein Sein, Burma would still be stuck in the stalemate of the past two decades.
But Burma still suffers from an enormous trust deficit. Beginning with its negation of the Panglong Agreement, and culminating with its refusal to recognize the results of Burma's 1990 elections, the military has a long record of broken promises. Just last week, it resumed attacks on Shan rebels two months after reaching a ceasefire deal, indicating that it still sees little need to honor agreements.
On the political front, things are, at least so far, somewhat better. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has been able to prepare for upcoming by-elections without facing the sort of harassment it has had to deal with in the past. Moreover, a visiting UN envoy has said that Burma might allow election monitors to observe the polls—a sign that at least some in power recognize the need to win the trust of others, rather than simply demanding it.
While many still feel that the government is merely taking a calculated risk in allowing the NLD to make a comeback, in the expectation that this will lead to a lifting of sanctions, it would be making a serious mistake if it believed that this alone will be enough to save Burma's economy. Although potential investors are now lining up for a chance to see what the country has on offer, few will stick around when they realize that it lacks any meaningful system of legal protections, as British risk assessment research company Maplecroft highlighted last week.
While Suu Kyi has often correctly stated that Burma needs to restore rule of law if it wants to develop as a nation, she has also noted that this is more than a matter of introducing new laws. Even the most enlightened laws have little value if no one has any confidence that they will be properly enforced and fairly applied.
If Burma's rulers truly want to end the country's disastrous isolation, they will have to begin by proving that they can be taken at their word. This will mean going beyond the current charm offensive and taking measures to rein in elements of the military that still regard themselves as laws unto themselves.
It will also require an acknowledgment of how far the country has strayed from its founding principles, and a firm commitment to keeping promises made to its ethnic peoples. Without this, Burma will be hard-pressed to emerge from the past half-century of unmitigated misery.