In rapid-fire fashion, the country has assumed the chairmanship of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations; plans for a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were unveiled; and once-detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she intends to run for a seat parliament.
“I think these are extraordinary developments,” said Sean Turnell, an economist with Australia’s Macquarie University. “Things can still be reversed, and at some point these reforms are going to push against vested interests risking a reaction from those in power, but this is potentially transformational.”
Many Myanmar exiles and dissident groups were more skeptical, pointing out that, since the military took power in 1962 in a military coup, the regime has on several occasions held elections, allowed political parties and rewritten constitutions. “It’s not the first time they’ve changed to suit their interests,” said Ko Pauu, a blogger living in Singapore. “But if you look close, there’s no democracy.”
And although the military government of Myanmar, also called Burma, released about 200 political prisoners recently, with rumors that more could follow soon, there are still 1,668 dissidents in jails across the country, said Aung Khaing Min, an official with the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based advocacy group.
Analysts said the government's calculation in its current series of reforms appears to be that it can control the process without losing its firm grip on power. In order to boost its image overseas and gain legitimacy, it released Suu Kyi from house arrest last year and held elections. Then it used Suu Kyi as a de facto intermediary with ASEAN and the West, knowing how much the West trusts her.
President Obama made a point of mentioning in Bali, Indonesia, that he’d spoken to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate before Clinton’s visit was announced.
By buffing its image, the ruling military elite is hoping to see economic sanctions eased and to gain access to International Monetary Fund loans, some critics said. Yet these analysts say it also believes that it can limit Suu Kyi’s popular National League for Democracy party because by-elections will cover only 48 of 500 seats over the next couple of years. And many observers believe that it will try to release the smallest number of political prisoners possible while appearing to be moving ahead.
At the same time, they predict the regime will try to put a little space between itself and China, but without losing Beijing’s core support, which it will want should a U.N. Security Council veto be needed in the future.
By far, Myanmar’s most important ally is China, which looms large in its calculations. Myanmar President Thein Sein’s recent move to halt construction on a controversial Chinese-led dam project was shrewd, analysts said. It played into widespread anti-China nationalism among Myanmar's citizens, sent a message that Myanmar’s sovereignty is intact and built good will that could become important in a later showdown against hard-liners within the regime.
“I don’t think you can lose popularity internally by having a bash at China,” economist Turnell said.
The longstanding strategy of countries on China’s periphery of playing other powers against China matches up with U.S. objectives, as Washington tries to counterbalance China’s rising power in the region by strengthening military, economic and trade ties with India, ASEAN members, Australia and South Korea.
Although the U.S. has staked its prestige on continued reform -- which could backfire if there’s a major setback -- Washington has also done a good job praising Myanmar’s early reform steps while calling for more prisoner releases, improvements on human rights and on treatment of ethnic minorities, Turnell said.
“They’ve played it well,” he said. “Other players are not there. No one’s asking what the European Union would do.”
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Myanmar President Thein Sein, left, is greeted by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, Kristiani Herawati, at summit in Bali on Nov. 18. Credit: Susan Walsh / Associated Press