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Geopolitics

In Burma, Unexpected Glimmers Of ‘Glasnost’

Burma’s new ‘civilian’ government – staffed mostly by former generals – is ushering in a wave of reforms that even some of the country’s most hardened dissidents are welcoming with cautious optimism.

Myanmar President Thein Sein, an unlikely reformer
Myanmar President Thein Sein, an unlikely reformer
Antoine Clapik

RANGOON – A perestroika wind is blowing through Rangoon these days after the formation, last spring, of a civilian government mostly made up of former generals from the cruel and corrupt military junta. The generals dissolved the former junta on March 30. Six months later there is clear evidence that a process meant to lead Burma toward "disciplined democracy" – the stated goal of the country's leaders – is taking place.

"We are currently enjoying a degree of real, political liberty. I am today more optimistic than I was several months ago," says Toe Kyaw Hlaing, who presided over the medical students union during the democratic movement of 1988. Burmese soldiers drowned that movement in blood.

Given Hlaing's background and political leanings, his comments speak volumes about the changes currently taking place. Hlaing is in regular contact with opposition leader and iconic dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who for the first time is willing to publicly express some optimism.

‘The Lady," as Suu Kyi is often referred to, still weighs her words carefully. But there is a noticeable contrast with the skepticism she had just after her release, in November 2010, following seven years of house arrest.

Suu Kyi met face-to-face with President Thein Sein last month. She told reporters later that Mr. Sein is indeed seeking "positive" changes. In a Sept. 18 interview with the AFP, however, she said there are "legitimate questions' about how far he is willing to go with the reforms.

Nothing much is known about the content of the discussions from their unexpected meeting. Either way, the tête-à-tête vividly symbolized the opening up of politics. At one point during the encounter, according to a Burmese source, the wife of the president spontaneously hugged the former opponent of the regime.

How far will the reforms go?

Most analysts question how long the government's newfound openness and transparency will last. "For now, the reformists have their hand on the State apparatus," says an anonymous source familiar with the inner circle of power. "But if the democratization process goes too far, the tough ones, the henchmen of the former dictator, Than Shwe, are ready to carry out a coup."

Relations are reportedly tense between the president and his second in command, Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo. The vice president leads a faction of ultraconservatives who are little inclined to accept much liberalization of the system.

"The president must move quickly if he wants to keep the opposing faction from regaining control," says Kin Zaw Win, a veteran human rights activist who was released in 2005 after 11 years in prison.

Zaw Win, a former dentist, presents himself as a supporter of ‘the third force." In many ways he embodies the evolution of political change in Burma. "I am neither for the government nor for Suu Lyi's National League for Democracy," he explains. "In Burma, we tend to see choices in black and white. The third force is in the gray area."

The winds of change

Historically speaking, the president's ‘liberal" faction has hardly been a champion for things like freedom of expression. Yet is it showing a commitment to reform, particularly in the field of economics. Once controlled tightly by the junta, Burma's economy is beginning to open up. "The economy," one observers notes, "is the real mechanism driving this political openness."

Who would have thought President Sein, of all people, would be the person opening Burma to the winds of change? "Not many," say foreign analysts in Rangoon, the country's economic capital. A former prime minister, Sein spent his entire career in the very military apparatus that has controlled the country for the past half-century.

No one had grand illusions that last year's general elections, which many observers say were rigged, would change much for Burma. Voters overwhelmingly elected the party in power, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Burmese law also reserves 35% of the seats in parliament for the army.

But things sped up abruptly during this year's drawn-out summer monsoon season. Press censorship has significantly been relaxed. "We now talk regularly about Aung San Suu Kyi in our columns, even if we are still submitted to censorship before publication," says Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of the English edition of the weekly The Myanmar Times

There are other signs of things opening up. On Aug. 17, President Sein announced that the country's political exiles could return home. Rumors spread of an eventual and gradual release of some 2,100 political prisoners. So far, however, nothing concrete has indicated that amnesty will take place soon.

On Aug. 18, the president began peace talks with military groups of ethnic minorities who continue to battle in the border regions. They demand the establishment of a real federation where they could operate autonomously. Without a doubt, this is where prospects are bleakest: the army continues to commit terrible atrocities against the civilian populations in these regions.

As long as these violent acts continue, Europe and the United States are unlikely to lift their economic sanctions against the government, which dreams of international legitimacy. Burma is finally opening itself to change. But it still has a long journey to take if it wants to shed its reputation as a pariah state.

Read the original article in French

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