After decades of self-imposed isolation and self-inflicted pariah status, Burma's regime is pushing ahead with political reform and diplomatic openness.
For years, world leaders shied away from Burma, out of disgust for its repressive behavior, disinterest in a perceived backwater and fear for the controversy engagement could arouse. Now, on the contrary, Burma is the place to be.
Since December last year, a string of foreign leaders has flocked to Rangoon and Naypyidaw. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lifted the cork out of the bottle. Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba followed, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague, various European foreign ministers, and British Prime Minister David Cameron came in hot pursuit.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are the latest in a long line of world dignitaries suddenly appearing alongside Burma's President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Moreover, in contrast to his reclusive predecessor, Than Shwe, Thein Sein is traveling more overseas, with his recent historic visit to Japan being the latest foray.
None of this would have been possible without the reforms that have taken place in Burma in the past year. In reality, it is only since Thein Sein's historic meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi last August that the pace of change in Burma has accelerated significantly.
After more than 20 years of refusing to talk to her or trying to suppress her, Burma's new president realized that Aung San Suu Kyi was a woman he had to do business with. After their surprise meeting, she declared that he was a man she could do business with.
Burma's democracy movement and the international community made clear to Thein Sein that there were certain steps he had to take before he could win the recognition he sought: the release of all political prisoners, the re-registration of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), institutional, legislative and constitutional reform, an end to severe human rights violations against ethnic minorities and a genuine peace process resulting in a political settlement in the ethnic areas.
Thein Sein has not met all these criteria, by any means, and there is still a very long way to go. Several hundred political prisoners remain in jail, repressive laws remain in place and the Constitution has not yet been amended. Although the government has negotiated some cease-fire agreements with some ethnic groups, no inclusive, nationwide political dialogue with the ethnic nationalities has yet been initiated. That is essential if more than half a century of civil war is to end.
A cease-fire is simply pressing the pause button. What is needed is a peace process that stops the conflict for good. For now, what is occurring is primarily a change in atmosphere, not yet a change in system.
Nevertheless, by the standards of this regime, admittedly starting from a very low base, Thein Sein has made surprising progress. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, in batches, since last October, including many prominent dissidents. The NLD was re-registered, contested parliamentary by-elections, and won 43 out of 45 contested seats.
Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being a prisoner of conscience to an elected MP. Restrictions on media have relaxed. Space for civil society has grown.
In order to understand how the situation might develop from here, it is important to ask how and why has Thein Sein taken these steps?
Let's start with the "why." First, Thein Sein realized that the status quo was not sustainable. Economically, Burma is crumbling. For decades the country once known as "the rice bowl of Asia" has been run into the ground by successive corrupt, incompetent and brutal military dictatorships.
Fuel price rises in 2007, which sparked the largest popular uprising in almost 20 years, were a warning of things to come. For ordinary Burmese, each day is a struggle for survival. Discontent is simmering.
Second, Thein Sein and others in the regime did not like their pariah status in the international community. Sanctions by the United States, the EU, Canada and Australia did bite--at least in terms of the regime's self-esteem. Why else would the generals complain so frequently about sanctions and Suu Kyi's support for them?
Third, and perhaps most important of all, the regime realized that Burma was in danger of becoming a satellite state of China, and the generals did not want that.
There has long been a racist strain in Burmese culture, and particularly antipathy toward the Chinese, and as whole areas of Burma, notably Mandalay, became Chinese-dominated, the regime decided it was time to counter-balance this.
The seeds of this policy were sown several years ago, when Than Shwe, the former senior general, who ruled Burma for 19 years, reached out to India. After purging Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and many of his military intelligence agents in 2004, Than Shwe made a visit to India, not China. One of the last overseas state visits he made before retiring was to India.
Thein Sein is merely expanding this policy of counter-balancing China by reaching out to the United States and the EU. In order to have good relations with the West, however, Thein Sein realized there were certain things he had to do.
How has Thein Sein been able to embark on this path? This is a slightly more difficult question. After decades of stalemate, how is it that Burma has now ended up with a president, an ex-general, whom Suu Kyi describes as a man of integrity whom she can trust? How is it that tough dissidents who have struggled against the generals for years now tell me that for the first time in 50 years Burmese people are praying for their president to live, not to die?
The first answer to this question lies in another question: Where is Than Shwe? The former senior general is the archetypal hard-liner.
He was known to erupt in fury at the mention of Suu Kyi's name. He refused to countenance dialogue with her. Known as an expert in psychological warfare, he favored the concept of divide and rule. He appeared to have little interest in the outside world, except for following the Manchester United soccer team with his grandson, and was content to pursue stronger relations with North Korea, a nuclear program, and the cruel suppression of his own people, leaving him open to accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The idea that Than Shwe is completely, 100 percent retired and off the scene is not credible. It is very hard to believe that a man who held total power for almost two decades could simply retire to his home, according to sources in the regime, to read books. He may have more time to work on his golf handicap, but it is inconceivable that he is completely detached from power.
The more likely scenario, and the one most Burmese suggest to me, is that he is a little like Ne Win, Burma's previous dictator, when he retired--but cannier. Like Ne Win, Than Shwe is retired from day-to-day decision-making, but government ministers pay occasional courtesy calls on him to brief him on one major policy or seek his advice on another.
Over time, his influence will wane, and he will fade gradually into the background. But for now, he is not totally off the scene--and he is keen not to end up like Ne Win, who died under house arrest and was buried in ignominy.
If he is not off the scene, how could Thein Sein--who was Than Shwe's chosen successor--be introducing these reforms? It is inconceivable that Thein Sein could have come this far without Than Shwe's seal of approval.
If Than Shwe wanted to stop the reforms, he'd have pulled some strings by now.
That leaves only one conclusion: that Thein Sein's reforms come with Than Shwe's agreement. It may well be grudging, it may well be counter-intuitive, but it's there. Why?
It doesn't wash to say this is all part of Than Shwe's road map to democracy, sketched out in 2004 after the Depayin attack on Suu Kyi and her convoy. That road map involved no reform and no dialogue. It was merely a new system designed to legitimize military rule.
That road map took Burma up to the 2010 elections, from which Suu Kyi and the NLD were excluded. Those elections, blatantly and widely rigged and subjected to widespread and system interference by the regime, delivered an Orwellian deal for the generals: on top of the 25 percent of parliamentary seats they already had sewn up in the Constitution even before the ballot, pro-regime parties secured an overwhelming majority and a stranglehold on Parliament.
By November 2010, Than Shwe had his legacy in the bag--and it was not a legacy of democratic reform. He handed over to Thein Sein, secure in the knowledge that the military's place in politics was protected.
And then came the Arab Spring. Than Shwe saw what happened to Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Libya's Moammar Gaddafi and other leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, and it gave him pause for thought. He realized that he faced two choices: leave things as they are and, in a matter of time, Burma could have another popular uprising, on a larger scale than the 2007 Saffron Revolution, in which his own personal security, wealth and welfare, and that of his family, could be in jeopardy; or, he could approve a process of gradual change, in which at least he, his family and his assets are protected. He chose what to him was the lesser of two evils.
There may, ironically, also be a little bit of legacy building mind-set in Than Shwe. He sees himself in the mold of the ancient Burmese warrior kings. Like the ancient kings, Than Shwe built a new capital, Naypyidaw, which means "the seat of kings," and that is part of his legacy. Perhaps, despite being a hard-liner, there is also a part of him that would prefer to be remembered as the man who gave the nod to a democratic transition, rather than the man who butchered thousands of his people and is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Perhaps he thinks that by allowing Thein Sein to talk with Suu Kyi--something he would never do--bring her into the process and proceed on the path of reform, he can compensate for the horrific suffering he inflicted on his people, wipe the blood from his hands and change his karma. Whatever his motivations, Thein Sein could not have got this far without Than Shwe, and that means Burma's spring is still fragile. If Than Shwe is still helping to pull some strings, could he call an end to the reforms if he feels they go too far and threaten his interests? Burma may be changing, but there is still a very, very long way to go.
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The author is East Asia team leader at the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and is author of "Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant," published by Silkworm Books in 2010 and in Japan by Hakusuisha. His new book, "Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads," will be released by Random House in mid-June.
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