Since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma last November, she has travelled the country, drawing large crowds in Bagan in July, launched plans to revitalise the National League for Democracy, and even appeared in the domestic media for the first time in years. She has also been talking with Burma’s new president, Thein Sein.
Last year’s elections, though they were hardly free and fair, allowed some smaller pro-democracy parties to win seats in parliament (the NLD didn’t participate), and created a civilian government, though the generals clearly still wield a lot of power behind the scenes.
Thein Sein is a former military officer, but seems to be presenting himself as a reformer: talking to Suu Kyi, calling for exiles to return to the country, and even admitting that Burma has fallen badly behind neighbouring nations – a tacit admission that years of military rule have held the country back.
The dialogue with Suu Kyi gives the government a chance to gain legitimacy, both inside Burma and in the eyes of the world. It may – especially if she were to endorse their plans for development – help them to regain access to International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance, attract new donors (Burma receives a fraction of the aid of neighbouring nations like Laos), and even, in the long run, get Western nations to drop sanctions, allowing Western investors back into the country and reducing its dependence on China. Suu Kyi’s blessing would also allow Burma to take a larger role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations.
For the first time since the military seized power in a bloody coup in Burma 23 years ago on Sept 18, 1988, there seems to be real change in the pipeline. There have been growing signs that the new government formed more than six months ago – after elections last November – is serious about economic and political reform.
Burma’s bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014 was politely dismissed when the bloc concluded its latest summit in Indonesia without a clear commitment on the matter.
Instead of receiving support for its bid, Burma was advised by fellow ASEAN members to build better infrastructure first if it really wants to lead the group in the future.
But the unstated reason for the quiet rejection of the country’s aspiration is the apparent failure of the ruling junta to improve its poor human rights record. In the eyes of ASEAN, and the rest of the world, Burma’s new government has been unable to hasten the democratization process because of its lack of sincerity and the fact that there is no definite and lasting initiative to promote political reconciliation with dissident parties.