Bit by bit, Myanmar is winning nods from the West as the former military junta edges toward reform, freeing political prisoners and letting the opposition compete in elections.
The Obama administration recently announced that it would loosen some of its economic sanctions, making it easier for food and medicine to get to the needy. The European Union suspended most of its sanctions Monday, a step that could help the impoverished nation gain thousands of jobs. Canada quickly followed suit, lifting most of its bans on imports and exports Tuesday as a reward for reform.
Yet Myanmar, also known as Burma, has much to prove before the United States will completely clear its thicket of complicated sanctions. The country is still a far cry from a free, democratic nation, experts and activists say.
“It’s better,” said Josh Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. “But it’s hardly turned into Sweden overnight.”
Brutal violence has been reported as ethnic conflict rages in Myanmar's northern stretches. The army has attacked and pillaged Kachin villages, raped women and forced Kachin child soldiers to the front lines to fight, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
Though the government has agreed to halt hostilities with some rebels, experts say that in order to forge a lasting peace, leaders need to strike a broader agreement that gives dissatisfied groups more autonomy and affords them a share of economic proceeds from mining or other industries.
“It’s a glaring thing that people have lost sight of,” said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Open Society Foundation's Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative. “Almost nobody has written about it. But this is the main issue that Burma has to resolve to complete its transformation.”
Though hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, hundreds more are believed to still be behind bars -- no one knows exactly how many are jailed. Repressive laws still allow journalists to be jailed, and people are not allowed to send emails abroad criticizing the country.
“They have all of these tools,” said Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of Democratic Voice of Burma, which broadcasts news reported by Myanmar journalists from Norway. “They’re just not using them. But if they want to, they can do it. The censorship is still there.”
Although recent elections ushered former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi into elected office for the first time, only a fraction of the parliamentary seats were in play in the election. That will change in three years, when Suu Kyi's opposition party will have a chance to tip the balance of power. The question is whether the military, still a driving force in the government, will allow it.
"The real litmus test in terms of how far the country has come” will be in 2015, said Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy programs for the Asia Society.
Another unknown is how and whether government leaders will be held accountable for past regime abuses. The popular Suu Kyi has stressed forgiveness, and many opposition leaders fear an aggressive push for accountability could sour the government on reform.
“The international community is not going to be happy with that,” Kurlantzick said. “The question is what they are willing to accept.”
The biggest fear is that Myanmar will backslide. President Thein Sein, who has a rapport with Suu Kyi and has helped institute the reforms, is aging, raising fears that his eventual death could derail change. Bringing the opposition into parliament has already hit a snag; Suu Kyi and her elected allies put off taking their seats Monday in a dispute over the wording of the oath of office.
The U.S. has been slower to lift sanctions than other countries partly because it has layered so many different sets of sanctions on Myanmar over time, so undoing them is complex. Some can be lifted by the president; others require Congress to act. But that same complexity has allowed the U.S. to walk the line politically on Myanmar, easing some sanctions while holding on to others.
“The challenge is striking the right balance between carrots and sticks,” DiMaggio said.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Protesters in Tokyo hold banners outside the Myanmar Embassy during a rally Monday to demand the release of political prisoners and other moves toward democracy in Myanmar. Credit: Koji Sasahara / Associated Press