During two decades spent mostly under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was a symbol of democratic resistance at home and abroad: she won the Nobel Peace Prize and inspired her compatriots to continue struggling against the regime. But because she was essentially kept out of politics by the government, she rarely had to behave like a politician. Since she had so little freedom to act, she was nearly impossible to criticise: I never met anyone in Burma with a bad word to say about her. In the past year, however, freed from house arrest, running for parliament in the upcoming by-elections and working closely with the government of President Thein Sein, Suu Kyi has become a politician again, losing some of her iconic status and no longer above criticism.
Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, the first by such a senior US official in five decades, received front-page coverage in most American newspapers, and around the world. Images of the secretary of state meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and sitting down with President Thein Sein made it look as if Clinton’s visit would prove a monumental event in US-Burma relations, and in Burma’s political trajectory. Coverage of Clinton’s visit in Burma itself, however, was relatively muted. In the main state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, it merited only a brief mention, while the concurrent visit from the president of Belarus and his wife was given broad coverage. At the airport in Naypyidaw Clinton was met by only a small welcome party, while the Belorussian delegation got a huge one. The generals have a long, deep friendship with Belarus, and still mistrust the US. But the disparity also highlights a point that few in the Clinton delegation would have admitted: Burma may indeed be changing, but the reforms have little to do with the US, its policies or its secretary of state.
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.
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 weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to demand clean and free elections. Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has dominated the country since independence, has a history of fraud, intimidation and other thuggery at the polls. The Bersih rallies (Bersih, meaning 'clean', is the nickname for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) were non-violent, but the government struck back with brutal force. The police attacked the demonstrators with batons, water cannon and tear gas, killing at least one and putting many in hospital, including the leader of the political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, who was photographed with obvious wounds to his head and legs. More than 1500 people were arrested.
Over the past two weeks, a series of bombs have hit major cities in Burma, including Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, the purpose-built city in the centre of the country where the regime moved its capital six years ago. Even by Burma’s standards, Naypyidaw is a heavily policed city. A bombing there requires significant planning and, probably, some co-ordination with sympathetic police and soldiers. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, which wounded at least two people (any numbers coming out of Burma are notoriously unreliable), but they are the latest sign of a rapidly deteriorating political situation in parts of the country.
For some time now, China has been growing increasingly aggressive toward its neighbours. This newly confident foreign policy, a shift from a decade of charming other nations in Asia, has been most evident in Beijing’s demands that other nations recognise its sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. In recent weeks, Beijing has insisted that Vietnam stop exploring for oil in the waters and delivered a blunt warning to any outside powers – i.e. the United States – not to intervene in any disputes over the Sea. Chinese vessels have cut the cables on Vietnamese ships, and China has stepped up its seizures of Vietnamese and Philippine boats, in a major breach of maritime protocol.
Over the past two years, royalists in Thailand have filed hundreds of charges of lèse majesté against their political opponents. As many as 100,00 websites have been banned for insulting the king and the royal family. The country, once hailed as a beacon of democracy for the region, is now ranked 153 out of 178 in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, just above Belarus.
In all the excitement at Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, too little attention has been paid to the question of why the junta let her out of house arrest. Regime officials say that she had come to the end of her term and so, by law, they could not hold her any more. But that explanation won’t do: in Burma, the ‘law’ is whatever the junta says it is, and the regime has on numerous occasions over the past twenty years come up with new trumped-up charges to keep Suu Kyi locked up.
The election in Burma largely conformed to predictions. Condemned by outsiders, it was to some extent ignored by many in the country: turnout was reportedly low. The US, Britain, Australia and other industrialised democracies decried the junta’s apparent vote-rigging, slanted electoral rules and refusal to let the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest before the polls. There are suggestions in Burma now that she will be released within weeks, though the terms of that release remain unclear. Most major human rights organisations have also focused on the unfairness of the election and the impact of the rigged vote on Burmese politics. Meanwhile, in northeast and eastern Burma, a potential catastrophe is unfolding.