Until very recently, the reforms brought in by Burma’s civilian government, elected last November in polls that were neither free nor fair, seemed worth treating with scepticism. Only a month ago, I pointed out that Burmese governments had instituted limited reforms before, in the 1990s and early 2000s, only to crack down on any dissent after getting what they wanted – foreign investment or membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The new president, Thein Sein, seemed like a reformer, but surely his power was limited: Senior General Than Shwe, the longtime military ruler, still lurked in the background, and the ranks below Thein Sein were filled with hardliners. Most notably, according to many reports, the vice-president, Tin Aung Myint Oo, is committed to blocking any real reforms. And the government has plenty to gain this time, too: the possible leadership of Asean in 2014, as well as rapprochement with the West, which might boost foreign investment and allow Burma to become less dependent on China.
Still, even sceptics are starting to believe that this time the changes may be for real. For one, the current reforms – the relaxation of controls on domestic and foreign media, the release of political prisoners – go beyond anything attempted in the mid-1990s or early 2000s. And, unlike in previous periods of détente, Aung San Suu Kyi has not only held talks with the government but has reappeared in a much more significant way in the domestic media.
Why would this time be different? As always, politics in Burma are opaque and hard to assess. But Senior General Than Shwe is older and frailer than in the 1990s and early 2000s, and, according to several diplomats, may simply want to assure that he can retire in peace with his great (and stolen) wealth untouched, avoiding the fate of his predecessor Ne Win, who ended his life under house arrest. The government may also want to keep the majority of the country stable and quiet so it can take on the ethnic militias in the north-east. Or, possibly, Thein Sein really has more power, and stronger reformist instincts, than we thought.