Signs of change in Burma?

The decades-long repression in Burma, one of the most isolated nations in the world, could be showing signs of easing, according to a new assessment released today from the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Burmese people, including women and children, lining up for basic goods. Photo: Reuters.
Burmese people, including women and children, lining up for basic goods. Photo: Reuters.

Here’s an excerpt:

In recent weeks a series of concrete steps have been taken to begin implementing the president’s reform agenda, aimed at reinvigorating the economy, reforming national politics and improving human rights. The political will appears to exist to bring fundamental change, but success will require much more than a determined leader.

The BBC seems to agree:

“The Burmese government has made a number of conciliatory gestures in recent weeks – easing restrictions on the media, allowing a visit by the United Nations human rights envoy and holding meetings with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.”

The ICG is a smart, well-respected group, although not immune to criticism. (Its assessment on Papua’s independence movement a couple years back drew fierce criticism from activists on the ground.) When I was reporting in Jakarta, I interviewed Sydney Jones, the ICG expert on Indonesia and found her knowledgeable about the complexities there.

However, conditions in Burma are often hard to read.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in 2010 (though barred from running in elections – which was the real threat to the military regime) has herself warned against too much optimism. After all, according to a report from Human Rights Watch earlier this month, at least 2,000 political prisoners remain locked up in Burma.

There are other signs as well. Today, the New York Times takes a look at the role public outcry is having in possibly changing government policy on a controversial dam across the Irrawaddy River. The Times notes that the project would flood a piece of land four times that of Manhattan and cause “irreperable harm” to communities downstream. It’s also created a rift within the government, which could be a good thing.

Passions are high. A government minister broke down in tears at a news conference last month when asked about the dam. High-ranking officials are said to be sharply divided over the wisdom of the project.

When I interviewed Phyu Phyu Sann, Burma researcher at The Global Justice Center in New York and former student leader in Rangoon who had to flee Burma, she was less hopeful. At the time, the regime had blocked international monitors for the elections in 2010, and things looked bleak.

But change is always possible.

Finally, for those interested, I highly recommend the Anders Ostergaard film, Burma VJ, which remains one of the best insights into Burmese society under the military rule. It’s a powerful documentation of the courage of a band of video journalists during the violent crackdown on the Saffron Rebellon in September 2007, which killed many. Check out the trailer below:

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