January 6, 2012


Is democracy finally coming to Burma?: With elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, Burma's brutal military regime seems to be loosening its grip. But can the generals be trusted? (Jason Burke, 1/05/12, guardian.co.uk)

Things started to change in March 2010 with the appointment of the civilian government. Few analysts can say exactly why the notorious Than Shwe decided on this move. Some argue that the motivation was purely economic, as only improved relations with the west will allow Burma to join the ranks of the Asian tiger economies. Others point to a resentment at China's growing role in the country. Nay Zin Latt, the political adviser to the president, says that the decision was simply the result of a realisation that "for capitalism and the free market to flourish, democracy was necessary".

"We need western investment, technical knowledge, the art of management. If the country doesn't grow economically then there will be big problems, big unrest. The people with Mercedes cars won't be able to drive them around the streets!" Latt explained.

Aung San Suu Kyi, or "The Lady" as she is known locally, was released from house arrest in November 2010 and elections that she and her party, the National League for Democracy, boycotted, were held the same month. These were deeply flawed but many were surprised that they were held at all. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 after the regime cancelled elections that her party had won, was seen as extraordinary.

Since then there have been other reforms. Many, such as new labour laws or legislation allowing protests, have had little practical effect on the ground. Others have had more impact. A handful of foreign journalists have been allowed in, surveillance of democratic activists is marginally lighter and work on a very unpopular Chinese-funded dam project, which would have generated huge amounts of cash for the regime while displacing tens of thousands of locals, has been suspended.

Local journalists have tracked the reforms through the degree of censorship to which they are subjected. "Before, printing any image of Aung San Suu Kyi was unthinkable. Then we could use pictures of her on the inside pages no bigger than 5 x 7in. Then suddenly we could put them on the front page," said Thi Ha Saw, editor of the Myanma Dana magazine.

It is not just the press. As all visiting reporters have remarked, there are posters of the Lady now on sale on street corners and her picture on mobile phones, walls and cars. The latest development is that Aung San Suu Kyi herself will lead her party in contesting byelections in the late spring. This is a risky and controversial decision that risks fracturing the fragile unity of the democratic campaigners in Burma. It will almost certainly result in the NLD entering parliament in some numbers - even if they will still be heavily outnumbered by soldiers in the assembly.

Posted by at January 6, 2012 6:39 AM

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