The Slow Thaw of Burma's Notorious Military Junta

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Nyein Chan Naing / EPA

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi makes an appearance at Burma's administrative capital, Naypyidaw, for a meeting with President Thein Sein on Aug. 20 2011

A cabal of military men has ruled Burma for nearly half a century, often with unfathomable cruelty. But recent events have made Burma watchers wonder if change is coming. Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest last year, made her first trip outside Rangoon in August. She was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and not, as she was in 2003, by the junta's thugs. When she left Rangoon again, this time for a one-hour talk with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw that left her feeling "happy and satisfied."

Is one of the world's oldest military regimes finally taking baby steps toward reform? Even the experts seem split. "There is still no evidence of a wish to embrace real democracy," says Andrew Selth, a research fellow at Australia's Griffith University. "But it has to be admitted that Burma's new government is demonstrating a degree of flexibility many commentators did not expect." Here are five signs that the junta is reforming — and five reasons for caution.


1. The New President
Thein Sein was handpicked by retired general Than Shwe but is no tyrant himself. He is "committed, not driven by personal interest, as well as modest and approachable," says analyst Richard Horsey, a former U.N. official in Burma. "[He is] proactively seeking inputs and signaling that there are no taboos in discussions with him." Thein Sein has been wishfully compared to South Africa's apartheid-era President F.W. de Klerk, with Suu Kyi his Nelson Mandela.

2. Aung San's Reappearance
Burma's independence hero is also Suu Kyi's late father, which is why the regime removed his face from bank notes and public places. But Aung San's youthful portrait dominated the room in which his daughter was greeted by Thein Sein — another sign the President is "his own man," says Horsey.

3. An Insein Prison Visit
U.N. human-rights investigator Tomás Ojea Quintana was allowed into Rangoon's most notorious jail to talk with political prisoners. He also met Suu Kyi and government officials.

4. A Slightly Freer Media
Government censors are usually unforgiving. But when True News Journal mistakenly referred to Suu Kyi as "President" in a recent cover story, it got off with just a warning. Newspapers are free to run photos of the Nobel laureate, although she can't be shown giving speeches.

5. Thein Sein's Choice of Chief Economic Advisor
Among the technocrats on the President's advisory board is U Myint, a respected economist and a friend of Suu Kyi.


1. The New President
President Thein Sein is a puppet of Than Shwe, say some critics, and is cynically co-opting Suu Kyi to take pressure off the military and prolong its pre-eminence. "Finding an F.W. de Klerk–like figure among Burma's military rulers is like searching for a needle in a haystack during a power outage on a pitch black night," wrote Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, on the Democratic Voice of Burma website.

2. Insein Jail
Conditions inside Insein jail remain horrific. Interrogators extract confessions with sleep and food deprivation, beatings and "the burning of bodily parts, including genital organs," reported U.N. envoy Quintana. And activists claim the regime still holds nearly 2,000 political prisoners, including 225 monks.

3. The Continued Persecution of the National League for Democracy
One member of Suu Kyi's party, Aung Hla Myint, was recently sentenced to 16 months in prison for traveling outside his hometown in central Burma.

4. Raging Civil Wars
Ongoing counterinsurgency operations by the Burmese military have displaced 50,000 people in Karen, Shan and Kachin states this year, claims Human Rights Watch. The New York City–based group believes the military's torture of convict porters, who are sometimes forced to trip landmines, constitutes a war crime.

5. The Runaway Kyat
Burma's currency is rapidly appreciating against the dollar, which punishes exporters and farmers. Poor economic conditions sparked popular uprisings in 1988 and 2007, and could do so again. This, say critics, is what really drives Burma's generals: fear of unrest, not desire for reform.