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Burma Democratizing? Is it Real?

“THE democratic process is on the right track,” U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley (D-NY) concluded after a visit to Burma earlier this week. Obviously, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thinks so, too. With President Obama’s approval, she has renewed diplomatic ties to Burma (Myanmar). An exchange of ambassadors will occur soon, the first since 1990.

Skeptics like myself have been hesitant to believe that President Thein Sein’s government really intended to bring Burma in from the cold after so many years of brutal tyranny (since 1962) under a succession of military rulers. Yet yesterday’s release from interminable incarceration of student insurgents from the 1988 uprising, and as many as long-serving 500 political prisoners, may indeed signify that dictator Than Shwe (the power behind the Myanmar military throne) has truly given Thein Sein authority to transform Burma’s enduringly corrupt kleptocracy into a proto-democracy.

“Proto-“ is an important qualifier because the military still controls parliament, and therefore can put a brake on any loosening of authority that Thein Sein may intend. Than Shwe and his associates in the junta still hold ultimate power.

The portents are positive, however. Secretary Clinton and others who envisage steady participatory improvements in Burmese proto-democracy and political modernization can point to five major developments:  1) The regime’s decision to permit Nobel Laureate and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stand for election in April to one of 48 open parliamentary seats. Other NLD stalwarts will also stand, possibly for many of the vacant seats. 2) In addition to freeing former student freedom fighters, and many Buddhist monks, all of whom will be able to report on how horribly they were mistreated in prison, Thein Sein also released former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, the junta’s one-time intelligence chief. He had a major falling out with Than Shwe in 2004, over tentative liberalization steps. He could rally dissident military forces.  3) The government concluded a peace agreement with the Karen rebels, among the largest of the many non-Burman ethnic groups that have been waging war against their Burman overlords since the 1960s. The agreement with the Karen could conceivably mean that Thein Sein and his colleagues are prepared for stability and a sharing of prosperity. 4) In September, Thein Sein halted construction on a large Chinese-backed dam on the upper Irrawaddy River, in northern Burma, ostensibly because of local protests. 5) The Myanmar government, historically hostile to visiting foreigners, is this week and next welcoming American Senate and corporate delegations. Thein Sein has indicated his desire to end Burma’s preference for autarchy; the country no longer intends to go-it-alone.

This last point is significant because for decades Burma’s closest economic partner has been China. Part of the reason for Burma’s decision to democratize, however gradually, is its plan to move a little distance away from China’s tight embrace. China is continuing to construct a port on Burma’s Andaman Sea coast, a road to traverse the distance between the port and Yunnan Province, and a pipeline to carry petroleum from across the world into the heart of southwestern China, thus avoiding the long journey through the Straits of Malacca. So Burma is not cutting ties to China, just using the possible entente with the United States to free up some space for itself between the globe’s big contenders.

The Arab spring, and its lessons concerning the surprising potency of angry protestors in seeming impregnable autocracies, further influenced Thein Sein and his associates. The relatively rapid shift in policy by Burma’s rulers resulted from their awareness that despotism was not forever. They reckoned, perhaps plausibly but certainly defensively, that downtrodden populations could indeed eventually rise up. For once, the Burmese junta has chosen to try to end up on the right side of history.

Burma will not fully emerge from its long tyranny until remaining political prisoners are released, media permissions are fully restored, freedom of assembly is honored, and – most of all—Daw Suu Kyi is permitted to play a prominent political role in the revitalized (?) Burma.But it does appear as if Burma is in fact en route. It is thus sensible that the West, especially the United States, will now be a central part of the process.



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