Since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma last November, she has travelled the country, drawing large crowds in Bagan in July, launched plans to revitalise the National League for Democracy, and even appeared in the domestic media for the first time in years. She has also been talking with Burma’s new president, Thein Sein.
Last year’s elections, though they were hardly free and fair, allowed some smaller pro-democracy parties to win seats in parliament (the NLD didn’t participate), and created a civilian government, though the generals clearly still wield a lot of power behind the scenes. Thein Sein is a former military officer, but seems to be presenting himself as a reformer: talking to Suu Kyi, calling for exiles to return to the country, and even admitting that Burma has fallen badly behind neighbouring nations – a tacit admission that years of military rule have held the country back.
The dialogue with Suu Kyi gives the government a chance to gain legitimacy, both inside Burma and in the eyes of the world. It may – especially if she were to endorse their plans for development – help them to regain access to International Monetary Fund and World Bank assistance, attract new donors (Burma receives a fraction of the aid of neighbouring nations like Laos), and even, in the long run, get Western nations to drop sanctions, allowing Western investors back into the country and reducing its dependence on China. Suu Kyi’s blessing would also allow Burma to take a larger role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations.
For Suu Kyi, the dialogue might serve as a bridge to real participation in politics again. If the talks yield real rapprochement, she might be able to get NLD members and supporters released from jail, rebuild the party, and get it into shape for the next election. She has also proposed to Thein Sein that she help mediate looming conflict in several areas of the country, where ethnic minority militias appear ready to go back to war with the government.
Then again, we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s, and again in the early 2000s, some Burmese officials appeared dedicated to reform. The government held limited talks with Suu Kyi, briefly freed her from house arrest, and courted Western investors and officials. The outside world responded by pouring in investment and allowing Burma to join important regional organisations. And, both times, when the generals had got what they wanted, they slammed the door again: Suu Kyi was tossed back in jail, investments were nationalised, political opponents were repressed, and Burma went back to business as usual.