Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Burmese spring?

Something good could finally be happening in one of Asia’s nastiest dictatorships

THE recent news from Myanmar, that beautiful, blighted land formerly known as Burma, has offered an all-too-rare cause for optimism. In the past week the president (and former general), Thein Sein, has announced that construction of the Myitsone dam across the River Irrawaddy would cease. That is probably a good thing for the environment; but it also marks a symbolic shift. It shows that for the first time for many years, Myanmar’s regime is prepared to annoy China, the dam’s main backer.

Irritating China is not necessarily a good thing. But in this case it appears to be part of a wider trend: Myanmar’s leaders seem prepared to pay more heed both to popular opinion at home and to pressure from the West. In August Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel peace prize who is the de facto head of Myanmar’s opposition, was invited for talks with Thein Sein himself. Miss Suu Kyi, who was previously confined for years under house arrest, has been allowed far greater freedom of movement and has even met several foreign visitors. Then in September the government passed a law to permit the formation of trade unions. These changes could just mark the start of a substantial shift in the now nominally-civilian leaders’ repressive policies.

This is not the first time that Myanmar’s leaders have eased up; and previous dawns have turned out to be false. In the mid-1990s, and then again in 2002-03, some form of reconciliation between the generals and opposition forces under Miss Suu Kyi seemed to be under way. On both occasions, the reforms led nowhere and there was ultimately a backlash by hardliners within the regime.

Yet even the regime’s opponents admit that there could be more to the relaxation this time round. For years Western sanctions seemed to produce little in the way of significant political change in Myanmar; instead they pushed the country’s leaders closer to China, which is more forgiving of dictatorships. But this greater closeness may not be entirely welcome. The people of Myanmar—and the regime—remain fiercely independent and popular resentment of China’s huge economic influence in the country has increased. With most ordinary people still poor, Myanmar’s leaders may have decided to liberalise to try to get sanctions lifted.

Take the pressure off, only slowly

How should the West react? Myanmar’s leaders, no doubt, would like to see sanctions lifted rapidly. To merit that, they need to do more. There are rumours of an imminent release of political prisoners. If it goes ahead, the leadership should get some credit. The biggest issue, however, is the 2008 constitution, which gives the armed forces the final say on everything, and which Miss Suu Kyi and her party have refused to recognise. As long as this constitution is in place, genuine political reconciliation at the centre, let alone with Myanmar’s myriad ethnic insurgent groups, is hard. This rotten document should be rewritten quickly.

Despite these caveats, the West should applaud reform and recognise Thein Sein’s efforts. Its failure to respond favourably to previous liberalisations has strengthened hardliners’ suspicions inside Myanmar. The changes this time may be limited, but they are a great deal better than no movement at all. After so many long years of hopelessness, they represent a small glimmer of light for the people of a dark land. The Economist

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