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Burma's reform process more than just window dressing

For long-term Burma watchers, it has been easy to regard that country’s recent political changes as window dressing by an authoritarian regime hoping to attract investment without actually giving up power. There is no doubt, too, that the 2010 elections remained a very long way from being free and fair.

But the bi-elections in April this year did appear to offer a glimpse of a genuine reform process, with opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates winning 43 of the 44 seats contested. Burma’s President Thein Sein has since been feted around the world as a reformer, as has NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as the symbol of hoped-for political change.

Since April, there have been numerous changes in Burma’s political and military leadership. To date, these changes have almost all seen the promotion of reformist officers or former officers and the side-lining of the government’s anti-reform faction.

Within Burmese society, the changes have been profound. There is a plethora of new and often outspoken newspapers and once-banned international news services such as the BBC and CNN are now freely available, at least where television reception is available. Beyond Burma’s few main cities, the restrictions are more economic and technological than political.

 Posters of Burma’s founding father, General Aung San, and his daughter, NLD leader and Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, adorn many shops and offices. Suu Kyi t-shirts, mugs and banners seem almost everywhere. Two years ago, to display just one image of either figure would have led to jail, or worse.

But there is now a strong sense of popular anticipation within Burma, with what seems to be a near universal view that Suu Kyi will lead the Burmese people out of five decades of military oppression.

If the April bi-elections, and the 1988 elections before them, are any indication, the NLD is likely to sweep almost all of the available seats in the 2015 elections. As local observers note, this could imply a one party state, if different from that experienced since 1962.

Such an outcome would be more benign than the pre-reform military regime. But Suu Kyi’s apparent indifference towards the persecution of Muslim Rohingas in Arakan state and the on-going war against Kachin separatists in the north may indicate that she is, if nothing else, her father’s daughter and, like the generals she hopes to replace, also favours ethnic Burmese domination in this multi-ethnic state.

It was this policy that led to the political rise of the military in the first instance. However, a more democratic framework, perhaps allied with greater ethnic provincial autonomy, could address this problem that has plagued the country since independence in 1948. In the meantime, international businesses (and tourists) are flooding into Burma, taking advantage of the relative isolation that has left much of the country in a post-colonial time capsule.

And for those who don’t trust anyone in a uniform, it is instructive to note that they key movements away from authoritarian government and towards democracy have, for the past 40 years, overwhelmingly been led by reform-minded generals. They have rarely been led by idolised civilian leaders.

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