YANGON – Since 1962, Myanmar’s dictatorship has jailed the opposition, beat up monks, denied aid to disaster victims, and run scorched-earth campaigns against ethnic minorities. That may be changing, however. Here are five key changes the regime has made in just a matter of months:
1.Free and fair elections
April 1, 2012, is the date Myanmar’s military-backed civilian government has set aside for parliamentary by-elections.
Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – forced to live under house arrest for years – is slated to run, along with other candidates from her National League for Democracy (NLD) Party.
If the vote is free and fair, as Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, has promised, it could go a little way in helping to democratize the government. The United States says it will reduce sanctions after April 1, if the elections are fair. But the key test is what comes after that.
In 1990, the NLD won elections only for the Army to keep Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years rather than let her govern. Aung San Suu Kyi remains hugely popular and there is little doubt she will be elected this year to parliament.
Though letting Aung San Suu Kyi take a seat would be a significant about-face for the government, only 40 seats of the 440 lower house seats are available, so the balance of power would not change. The Army holds a veto-wielding 25 percent of the seats, and almost 80 percent of the rest are held by the Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
2.Currying favor with the West
Looming north of Myanmar (also known as Burma), booming China is its biggest investor and ally. Beijing has regularly protected its neighbor from condemnations and sanctions attempts by the United Nations Security Council.
As evidence of the close ties, Myanmar’s military government proposed a $3.6 billion dam project to China in 2006 and signed a contract in 2009 with China Power to build it.
The mammoth Myitsone dam in Kachin State in the north, close to southwest China, was controversial from the beginning with locals, as it was slated to flood an area the size of Singapore but send 90 percent of the power generated to China. Still, it didn’t seem to budge Myanmar.
Anger culminated in 2011 when citizens campaigned against a dam that would, they say, undermine the ecology of the Irrawaddy River, the country’s main waterway.
Then, Mr. Thein Sein shocked China – and many Burmese citizens skeptical that the government would undertake real reform – by suspending the deal last September.
And just as the US has been cozying up to Vietnam after Hanoi took umbrage at China’s muscle-flexing on the disputed South China Sea, Myanmar’s reforms give Washington, which has been eyeing resource-rich Myanmar, a reason to scale back sanctions and become friendly.
If Myanmar complies with the list of reforms the West has requested, then the US will allow its companies to invest in Myanmar, broadening its footprint in Asia, to China’s chagrin.
But there may be limits to a greater US presence in Myanmar. China has put $14 billion into Myanmar in recent years and is well placed to counter what it sees as US encirclement in Asia. Aung San Suu Kyi has said that Myanmar needs friendly relations with China, no matter how ties with the West change.
3.Calling for peace
Myanmar’s Army has long been accused of widespread human rights violations in ethnic minority regions, a vast arc stretching from the Myanmar-Bangladesh frontier in the west to the border with Thailand to the southeast. Two areas of fighting have been particularly bloody.
Myanmar’s Army and the Kachin Independence Army, a 10,000-strong militia seeking increased local autonomy for the largely-Christian Kachin, one of the larger of Myanmar’s 130-odd minorities, have been fighting since June 2011. The government of Myanmar and the KIA are having talks in China about a truce, but fighting continues. Still, though some estimate it could take a few years, talks could pave the way for peace in Kachin State.
And then there is the Karen National Union (KNU), a militia from the Karen ethnic group living mainly near the Thai border, which has been fighting the Army since around the end of World War II.
There have not really ever been any formal truces, but earlier in January the government announced a truce with the KNU that is being taken as a signal that Myanmar’s government wants to make peace – though many exiled dissidents are hesitant.
The big story in Myanmar lately has been the freeing of some 600 political prisoners.
Among those released were Zarganar, the country’s most famous comedian, jailed after criticizing the government’s (lack of) response to 2008 cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 140,000 people – though Burmese officials quoted in WikiLeaks cables say the toll could have been twice that.
Also freed was Paw U Tun, better known by his nickname Min Ko Naing, or “Conqueror of Kings,” who led student protests against Army rule as far back as 1988 and was again jailed after the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” named for the color of robes worn by the thousands of monks who fronted the protest.
The sight of these men and women walking free has been compared to Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in South Africa in 1990.
And the man at the helm, Thein Sein, has been called an F.W. de Klerk – the regime insider who ended apartheid in South Africa.
Aung San Suu Kyi says she trusts Thein Sein, but many dissidents, particularly those in exile, remain skeptical, saying he is the figurehead rather than the driving force behind changes that have baffled and surprised many.
5.Relaxing curbs on press and people
Myanmar’s long years of military rule meant some of the tightest restrictions on the press anywhere outside of North Korea. A censorship board vetted all publications – and still does, for political or news content at least – and routinely excised chunks of articles and more if the content was in any way “critical” of the government.
The country’s parliament is scheduled to discuss a new media law in coming weeks, with local journalists hopeful the censors will be disbanded.
In late 2011, the Myanmar government also announced laws permitting the formation of trade unions – banned up until then as the government feared the prospect of groups of disgruntled workers in Myanmar’s decrepit economy forming mass associations. It also announced a new code permitting public demonstrations, so long as these are pre-approved by the police.Show